An enthusiastic crowd welcomed Karen Akers on her opening night at San Francisco’s Plush Room. Her engagement there is the first in a rich series of programs booked by Trevor Logan in conjunction with the West Coast Cabaret Convention.
Akers makes a stunning stage appearance, with a twenties-look helmet bob framing cheekbones a fashion model would kill for, and a wide smile that she offers graciously and easily. She’s fashionably thin, groomed with understated chic, and gives the impression of being confident and relaxed on stage. That may be the result, in part at least, of the thorough preparation evident in her show: Akers knows her material inside and out and has her delivery down to a T.
She has all the tools – a buttery, round, sweet mezzo instrument which she most often uses sparingly, but is capable of opening up to a satisfyingly full sound; faultless breath control and pitch; and an intelligence in phrasing and the delivery of a lyric that matches anyone in the business today.
Akers titles her current program "Haunted Heart." From her charming and thoughtful chat between numbers, the audience learns a bit of her expatriate’s experience of longing to be wherever she’s not – expressed in song in a twined medley of an old Josephine Baker number, "J’ai duexamours" and the American folk song, "Shenendoah." Whether in Paris by the Seine, longing for the States, or somewhere in Virginia by the Shenendoah thinking of Paris, there’s also the element of just wishing to have the luxury of time to stop and watch the rolling river, as it were. It is at this sort of gentle rue that Akers is at her best.
The program overall is heavily weighted with love songs – love that’s good, love that’s gone wrong, typified by one telling phrase that passes quickly: "coming together, staying alone." There’s a torchy, bluesy "Paris is a Lonely Town" (Harburg-Arlen), the highly nostalgic "Not Exactly Paris," Jacques Brel’s "Marieke." A somewhat more contemporary sound is offered by Randy Newman’s "Feels Like Home."
As the evening wends on, it becomes clear that Akers mines a narrow range of mood and emotion. "Paris in the Rain" does have a change of pace waltz beat and a light comic twist, and "Sympathique" is another bit of comic relief – if essentially a one-joke song. But it’s the love gained, love lost theme that predominates and, while Akers is a good singing actress, she never really opens herself up emotionally. She projects a shimmering, artful surface, but the feelings are those of the song, never those of the singer of the song. Akers holds back and she doesn’t connect.
This feeling grows as the evening progresses, partly emphasized by the choice of material, the sameness of mood. But it comes to a head in a big and important number, the last before the encores: "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien." Akers sings the song beautifully and lets her voice out big for the climax. But she ‘s not convincing; she hasn’t plumbed the powerful emotion of this anthem to courage. The comparison to Piaf is inevitable and invited by the choice. When Piaf sang this song she bared her soul; she brought her own painful experiences of life to the lyric and her refusal to have regrets was powerful, gutsy. It’s a song that should grab viscerally and make the listener feel what the singer feels.
There is, surely, a style in the cabaret tradition – Mabel Mercer herself comes to mind – that focuses on the intellectual side: on the musicality and on the intelligent delivery of the lyric. Karen Akers excels on those counts. If it is a grittier connection you want with a song, though, that’s not on the menu this week at the Plush Room.