DIVA TALK: Chatting with Karen Akers Plus News of LuPone, McDonald and McEntire

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Karen Akers Plus News of LuPone, McDonald and McEntire News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Karen Akers
Karen Akers Photo by Heather Sullivan

KAREN AKERS

Spring has become a favorite season for many New York cabaretgoers who know that one of the great song interpreters makes her annual Gotham appearance at the Algonquin's Oak Room this time of year. That acclaimed chanteuse is, of course, Karen Akers, whose Broadway credits include the original companies of Grand Hotel and Nine; Akers, in fact, earned a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut in the latter as Guido Contini's much-put-upon spouse Luisa. It has been in the concert and cabaret worlds, however, where Akers has truly made her mark, wrapping her dark, rich, silky contralto — which throbs with an emotional intensity — around the songs of Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf, Craig Carnelia and Stephen Sondheim. In the past few years Akers has turned her attention to the Great American Songbook, probing songs by Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and others with equal intelligence and depth. And, this season promises to be equally exciting, since Akers will present an entire show comprised of the work of one of the musical theatre's great composing teams, John Kander and the late Fred Ebb. The multitalented singing actress has titled her newest show First You Dream: The Songs of Kander & Ebb, and she will be holding court at the Algonquin April 4-May 13. Backed by Don Rebic on piano and Brian Glassman on bass, attendees can expect to hear tunes from such Kander and Ebb musicals as Cabaret, The Happy Time, The Rink, The Act, 70 Girls 70 and Steel Pier. I recently had the chance to chat with Akers about her upcoming engagement at the famed New York cabaret; that interview follows.

Question: How did the idea come about for an all Kander and Ebb show?
Karen Akers: To be honest, it was my director's [Richard Niles] idea originally. We all hopped on the bandwagon very quickly. [My musical director] Don [Rebic] was thrilled with the idea. I was the most reluctant one [laughs] because I wasn't sure that I could do justice to these songs. I wasn't sure that I was the right person. Kander and Ebb and Karen Akers don't necessarily fit in the same sentence as far as most people see me. It took very little time for me to realize that the key to entering into these songs and coming to work on them and interpret them was the fact that they were basically written for actors, and they're roomy. There was plenty to explore.

Q: This is the first time that I can remember you putting together a show that's solely the work of one composer or a composing team.
Akers: This is the first time. When Richard suggested this, I thought, "Well, that ought to simplify life to some degree." And, it doesn't, especially with this particular pair. [Laughs.] They're prolific. They have a wonderful body of work that's enormously varied. It's the most varied show — in terms of different colors and moods — that I think I've ever done. It's also the one that is probably the most entertaining so to speak — that has songs in it that are pure, unadulterated fun.

Q: I was looking over the song list, and it seems like they're all new songs for you. How daunting is that?
Akers: They are all new songs! [Laughs.] Daunting, yes, daunting. Except the encore — if we do an extra song, it's one that [I have done before, although I] didn't know as much about it as I know now. . . . I think the only time I ever performed ["Yes"] was back in the seventies when I was at Reno Sweeney. "Yes" is one of those wide-open [songs] — the more you invest in the song, the more there is. My musical director, whose judgment I trust implicitly — we seldom disagree about music, but we do occasionally — this was one of the ones he wasn't too sure about it. He felt it was [too] "light." He didn't think there was enough substance there. [But] if you raise the stakes within and you set it up [properly] . . . It's the idea of welcoming the unknown, being willing to take risks . . . . It's just the idea of engaging with life. So much in today's world really has the effect of making us pull back. . . . This song, aside from the fact that it was one of Fred's absolute favorites, he really felt that it expressed their philosophy: He was very much for engagement and taking part in the world. Q: Had you ever worked with John Kander or the late Fred Ebb?
Akers: No, but I had met them. I had sung years and years ago [when] we did some sort of seminar or master class. I remember Fred was singing some things, and I was also singing some things. It was on a very small scale in a room with supportive friends. [Laughs.] I had met him, and I had met John and knew that John was notoriously shy but has a wonderful sense of humor. . . . He's been very, very busy because he has some things he's trying to pull into being, things that he'd been working on with Fred. . . . He's been very sweet and very encouraging with his e-mails. His first telephone message to me was just charming, and then his first e-mail . . . was extremely nice and very sweet, [and] his [subsequent] e-mails have been very encouraging. . . . I was so hoping that we would have the chance to sit down, but I've been performing and he's been working and writing, so I think our next face-to-face meeting will probably be at the Algonquin!

Q: When did you start working with Richard Niles? You haven't always had a director for your shows, have you?
Akers: No, silly me, I went for years thinking, "I'll just do what I do because I love it so much, and I'll just hope that others will love it, too." I don't know what I was thinking because it really is marvelous to have another pair of eyes that is semi-objective and very savvy. He teaches theatre, and he's really marvelous. He's so smart, and he just gets the essence of something very fast and can help me highlight it. It's a lot of fun to work with him. We really have a good time — we laugh a lot. . . . We started working together about five years ago when he was my coach. I would take a piece of material to him because he'd worked with my sister [Nicole Orth-Pallavicini], who's a marvelous actress. . . . Nicky had worked with Richard and said, "Oh, sweetie, he's really fabulous. You should have a session with him." We got together and it was really eye-opening and fun, and it really expanded the potential of any song. I remember there was a silly song we did the first year I worked with Richard. There was a song about Queen Elizabeth that I never would have had the guts to attempt on my own, but it turned out to be a small gem with Richard in terms of comic potential.

Q: Anything that surprised you when going through Kander and Ebb's canon of work?
Akers: I hadn't seen Steel Pier. It's not surprising that I would be attracted to their less-familiar scores. I sort of made a beeline for them because I wasn't an entire company, and I couldn't really give the razzle-dazzle to the big numbers that they deserve. So I was going to look at a different scale of a song, more intimate, heartfelt ballads.

My director kept talking about things like "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup." I was familiar with the song. I had heard it done by a group at breakneck speed, but I just didn't see that it could be mine. Richard said, "It can be. Trust me. It can be funny and sexy, everything. Let's just have a look at it." I was proved wrong yet again. [Laughs.] And I decided to include it. . . .

I don't want to scare people. There are familiar songs that they will recognize. There's something from Cabaret . . . some things from The Rink. Maybe some of them were lucky enough to see The Act. I think that Liza's performances in The Act were so mesmerizing and so electrifying and so high energy that the music may . . . not have been as noticed, so I think it's fun to revisit [those songs]. . . . There was one that we were working on called "There When I Need Him," and Don was playing it one day, and he turned to me and said, "I don't understand why this isn't a standard."

Q: I'm always interested in a singer or actor's process. When you start to learn a new song — and here you had so many new songs to tackle — what do you do first? How do you go about making it your own?
Akers: Boy, it's sort of a multi-layered process. In this case I did something I don't usually do. I usually wait until I've learned a song so that I can sing it a cappella to myself and know that I've got it melodically. Well, I didn't quite do that this time. I heard some of the songs. My director lent me a whole bunch of CDs, which I compressed and put songs I was interested in on a couple of CDs and took them to France with me when I went home at the very end of December. And then I had a notebook, and I wrote out lyrics just to get familiar with ideas and things the songs were saying in an attempt to find ways inside and what the stakes were in each song. At some point when I came back to New York, I typed them up in the computer, so I could have them to work on and makes notes when I work with Richard. I may, in fact, write them out again without any reference points. It's a long haul. I used to write them out in calligraphy. I did write the first batch out in calligraphy, which is a little silly, but maybe the slowed tempo helps to fix things in my mind. . . .

There were a couple of songs that I'm not doing [at the Algonquin] that I would love to. And, in fact, some day I think I'm going to expand the show so I can do it in a small theatre. Then I could include a couple that didn't quite fit in with the scheme of things here, the theme being First You Dream and the importance of holding on to your dreams in order to accomplish anything. You have to dream up the idea first and then go after it, but the dream is terribly important. It's an optimistic approach or hopeful approach overall, sometimes almost courageous in the face of heartbreak. And, some of the songs didn't quite fit that [theme]. "The Money Tree" is a fabulous song, but we ended up saying it wasn't right for me in this collection, but that doesn't mean it might not be right if I expand the show.

Q: What's it like playing the Oak Room's unique space?
Akers: I've come to love it. I'm accustomed to it now. It's not so daunting. At first I had no idea how I was going to proceed, having people to one side and the other and very few right in front of me. It became very natural, and I would just talk to everyone at different times.

Q: You also have a new recording coming out.
Akers: Yes, I'm really excited about it. Richard, as well as others, have encouraged me in the last couple of years to look at songs from the Great American Songbook and sort of move away from Brel, whom I adore, and the French material and Piaf and all of that — to move away from that and really delve into the Great American Songbook. Richard, as my director, felt it was really important for my development as a singing actress, and he believed that that material would give me more breadth and offer me a bigger space to work with, in terms of interpreting and investing emotionally. I just had never really done a lot of that before, and then I really did dive in and thought, "Oh my God, why haven't I been doing more of this?"

I think I was just intimidated by the fact that this was material covered by so many people, but [different singers] bring their own outlook and their own psyche and can really effectively change the whole color of a song. So this [recording] includes Rodgers and Hart, Hoagy Carmichael, Gershwin, two Cole Porter, Sondheim, something by Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and Lionel Bart. [Bart is] not exactly Great American Songbook, but ["As Long As He Needs Me"] was familiar enough that I decided I would include it. [The CD, "Like it Was" on DRG Records,] opens with a very different interpretation of "I Wish I Were in Love Again."

Q: You mentioned Brel, and I was wondering whether you miss performing that material?
Akers: It's funny — I just did two concerts in Spain, in Barcelona, that were called Vive La Chanson!, Long Live the Song!; that title, I felt, gave me some latitude to include some things in English, maybe "Stars and the Moon," which I think of as a chanson, which I ended up not doing. I ended up doing basically the entire concert in French. I haven't let go [of that material], it's just that I've opened another window, working on a different side as a performer, different aspects of my personality.

[Karen Akers will perform First You Dream: The Songs of Kander & Ebb April 4-May 13 at the Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44th Street. Show times are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 9 PM and Fridays and Saturdays at 9 and 11:30 PM. There is a $60 cover for all shows plus a minimum. Call (212) 419-9331 for reservations.] DIVA TIDBITS
Congratulations to Tony and Olivier Award winner Patti LuPone, who will receive The Drama League's Distinguished Achievement in Musical Theatre Award during the League's 72nd Annual Awards Ceremony and Luncheon May 5 at noon. Stephen Sondheim will be on hand to present LuPone with her award. LuPone, of course, is currently starring in the acclaimed revival of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. The annual luncheon will also honor Des McAnuff with the Julia Hansen Award for Excellence in Directing and Marian Seldes with the Unique Contribution to Theatre Award. The ceremony, hosted by Threepenny Opera's Alan Cumming, will be held at the Marriot Marquis. Tickets, priced $150-$450, are available by calling (212) 244-9494, ext. 5 or by visiting www.dramaleague.org.

During her upcoming solo concert at Carnegie Hall, four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald will pay tribute to the Golden Age of the Broadway musical. On April 29 at 8 PM McDonald will take to the stage of the famed hall, backed by a 31-piece orchestra under the direction of music director Ted Sperling. Concertgoers can expect to hear tunes from The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, A Little Night Music, Porgy and Bess and She Loves Me as well as songs by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, Jule Styne, Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, Kurt Weill and Irving Berlin. Tickets, priced $26-$90, are available by calling (212) 247-7800 or by visiting www.carnegiehall.org. Carnegie Hall is located in Manhattan at 154 West 57th Street.

The acclaimed Carnegie Hall concert of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's South Pacific — starring Grammy Award winner Reba McEntire and Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell — will be released on CD April 18 by Decca Broadway. The CD, produced by Jay Davis Saks, arrives just a few days before PBS will broadcast the South Pacific concert, which was recorded live at the famed hall. The PBS telecast, part of the "Great Performances" series, is set to air April 26; check local listings.

Rufus Wainwright may be planning to sing the songs of Judy Garland — June 14 and 15 at Carnegie Hall — but cabaret singer Angela Scollo will offer the songs of Rufus Wainwright in her new cabaret act With Eyes in Love. Scollo, backed by musical director Mary-Mitchell Campbell on piano and Taylor Hollyer on bass, will perform at the Hideaway Room at Helen's April 18, 19, 25 and 26 at 7 PM. In her new show, Scollo will examine the complexities of life and love through Wainwright's songs. Helen's is located at 169 Eighth Avenue, between 18th and 19th Streets. There is a $15 cover and a $15 minimum; call (212) 206-0609 for reservations.

And, finally, who knew Amy Irving sang? Okay, the Oscar-nominated actress doesn't sing during A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop — the one-woman show at 59E59 Theatre penned by Marta Góes and directed with flair by Richard Jay-Alexander — but audiences will hear a snippet of Irving's vocals during the curtain call. Irving has recorded Ary Barroso's "Aquarela Do Brasil" — more commonly known as "Brazil" — which plays while Irving takes her well-deserved bows. Safe Harbor, about Pulitzer Prize-winning gay poet Bishop, runs through April 30.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Amy Irving in <i>A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop</i>.
Amy Irving in A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop. Photo by James Leynse
Today’s Most Popular News: