Karen Akers: Sing the Shadows Away: Songs of Doubt and Reassurance

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Karen Akers

Sing the Shadows Away: Songs of Doubt and Reassurance

Beach Café, NYC, June 16, 2018

Reviewed for Cabaret Scenes by Alix Cohen

Karen Akers

One doesn’t just listen to a Karen Akers performance, one experiences it. Material is acted rather than sung. Communication with an audience feels candid.

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This has been particularly true over the last couples of years as her shows become increasingly personal.

Noël Coward’s “20th (21st) Century Blues” seems resonant and empathetic these days. Still, it’s clear Akers is speaking from her own zeitgeist. Long notes emerge out of depth as if they were uncontainable exhalation. The last “blues” emerges in five syllables. She says, “Please don’t be frightened. Those are the only blues in the show…I felt the sooner we got to the shadows, the sooner we could be comforted and amused….”

“Often I think this sad old world is whistling in the dark/Just like a child who late from school/ walks bravely home through the park….” is from “Whistling Away the Dark” (Johnny Mercer/Henry Mancini). The artist’s eyes and voice shimmer with tremulous hope: “Whistling, whistling/here in the dark with you.” The Beach Café holds its collective breath.

Declaring herself something of a hermit, Akers launches into “Live Alone and Like It” (Stephen Sondheim). Sassy and loose, she extends both arms and personality as if to dare us to stop her from devising her own terms: “…um hmmm…Don’t come down from that tree….” Alex Rybeck’s piano is playful, wry.

That resolution is challenged with Sondheim’s “Water Under the Bridge.” Is it love? Is it real? How would I know? Written for a film that was never made, the song is a favorite from the Akers oeuvre. It’s exacting both musically and emotionally, a start/stop, palpably torn conversation with herself.

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Phrasing is impeccable. Last notes unfurl.

“Alone Too Long” (Dorothy Fields/Arthur Schwartz) finds the performer timorous, asking for patience. “If you smile…” she sings. Hands that begin shyly in pockets, end clasped. Lyrics gain richness when shared by a woman who’s already had loves and a full life (not over). “Being alone is not always a matter of choice” introduces Stephen Flaherty’s satirical “Torch Song” about the dating issues of the green, 305-foot lady who stands in our harbor. The frustrated dame provides comic respite.

A second highlight is “The Animal in the Pit” (Ellen Fitzhugh/ Larry Grossman from the revue Compose Yourself), the seriocomic chronicle of a Mexican divorce. Akers is a storyteller, especially when playing the heroine. Every word is credible, deadpan, droll. Counterpoint of sophisticated persona and mordant, unembellished description works wonderfully. There’s vinegar in the vocal.

Two songs about the business we call show address that part of the artist’s life and ours. With Fred Ebb and John Kander’s “At the Rialto” we (therapeutically) lose ourselves in flickering fantasy, while the very clever “Now” (Joe Keenan/Brad Ross written for the 100th anniversary of Actors Equity) acerbically defends preferences of working in film, television, and theater. “She said to me, I love that you’re still doing plays, but a show is no reason to miss pilot season!” Akers exclaims in monologue. Snappy phrasing carries this song, while earlier, a version of Dory Previn’s country/western “Lover, Lover, Be My Cover” is less successful for lack of it. Go figure.

The show’s French section begins with a powerful “You’re Not Alone” (Jacques Brel), material as demanding as “Water Under the Bridge.” A singer clings to the past as if, in vivid recollection, one might actually be able to go back: “Come on, love, come on/We’ve got each other now/And if that’s not enough/Remember being young.” Alex Rybeck’s arrangement is haunting. Akers’ left hand reaches out, then fists as shiver-inducing longing expands into every corner of the room.

“We make so many choices, the best we can hope for is to get some of them right” introduces her French rendition of the signature Edith Piaf song, “Non, je ne regrette rien” (Michel Vaucaire/Charles Dumont). Akers’ soulful testimony is unconditional. We hear pride, pain, courage, and against-the-odds joy.

Sondheim’s delicate “With So Little to Be Sure Of” drifts down like feathers. Akers seems disarmingly vulnerable, grateful, pensive, as, I suspect, are most of us.

Alix Cohen

Alix Cohen’s writing began with poetry, segued into lyrics then took a commercial detour. She now authors pieces about culture/the arts, including reviews and features. A diehard proponent of cabaret, she’s also a theater aficionado, a voting member of Drama Desk, The Drama League and of The NY Press Club in addition to MAC. Currently, Alix writes for Cabaret Scenes, Theater Pizzazz and Woman Around Town. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine and Times Square Chronicles. Alix is the recipient of six New York Press Club Awards.