Karen Akers makes it all about love for Valentine’s Day Trust Cabaret

By Sharon Eberson

Karen Akers was honing her song list just a few days ahead of her Valentine’s Day cabaret, but she was sure of one thing: It’s all about love.

Akers is up next for two shows in the Trust Cabaret Series on Monday, Feb. 14. At first, she and her music director, Alex Ryback, shied from being too on the money for her return not only to Pittsburgh but to a full in-person set after two pandemic years. They also didn’t want to be coy about it.

“Then we decided, why fight it?” Akers was saying in a phone interview Thursday. “We are going to lean into it.”

An example is the theme song from “the most romantic movie ever made,” “An Affair to Remember.”

“Everyone has seen that movie, right?” Akers asked. “Even if you’re young, your parents or grandparents would have told you about that one.”

Many of the songs they are planning are unconventional or lesser-known for a Valentine’s Day list, including her choice to honor songwriting G.O.A.T. Stephen Sondheim, who died last year.

“Live Alone and Like It” is one of five songs Sondheim wrote for Madonna to sing in the movie “Dick Tracy.” You could say it’s about self-love, “Doing whatever you please / When your heart desires.”

Along those same lines, Ryback has called Akers, 76, “a sociable loner,” and she describes herself as having hermit tendencies inherited from her mother.

Yet she also would say she is a once and always performer.

Akers is perhaps best known for her Tony-nominated role as Luisa Contini in the original company of Nine, and here in Pittsburgh, she will sing Luisa’s “My Husband Makes Movies.”

Raffaela in 1989’s Grand Hotel was Akers’ other Broadway show, and on-screen, she portrayed Kitty, the Copacabana chanteuse in The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Jack Nicholson’s socialite lover in Heartburn.

A frequent performer on the New York cabaret scene, Akers was described by Playbill.com as a singer-actress who “wraps her lush contralto” around a tune, with a voice “likened to silver bells wrapped in velvet.”

One song Akers is planning on, “unless I lose my nerve,” comes via mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, who cut loose with the circa 1920s “If I Could Be With You” at the annual Cabaret Convention in October.

“I just fell for that song,” Akers said. “She sang it with a ukulele, and I don’t play ukulele, but I will have to let Stephanie know I’ve stolen this.”

You can be sure Akers will be channeling her biggest influence, Edith Piaf, with a rendition of “La Vie En Rose” and a story to go with it, as well as “No Regrets” (“”Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”).

She is building the new cabaret for Pittsburgh after an unusually long time away from the stage. During the pandemic, Akers has done several benefit concerts and continued working with a vocal coach, but Pittsburgh marks a pandemic comeback of sorts.

The singer has long been a stalwart in New York cabaret circles, often appearing at the Algonquin Hotel’s famed Oak Room and monthly at The Beach Cafe in recent, pre-pandemic years.

One of those Oak Room concerts was devoted to Stephen Sondheim songs, and she met with “Steve” at his home before the show. The meeting led to a discussion of his “very complex and long” song, “Water Under the Bridge,” written for Barbra Streisand, and a legendary movie project that never moved beyond development, titled “Singing Out Loud.” Akers had in mind her own, shorter version for her cabaret and broached the subject with Sondheim, who said he had his own tighter version and would send it to her.

“It was exactly what I had done!” Akers said.

Sondheim came to the cabaret, and when Akers saw him, she forgot the words to her opening number but recovered and went on with the show. Sondheim came to see her afterward and gave his seal of approval.

” ‘Do you know what my favorite was?’ he asked me. ‘It was “Water Under the Bridge.” I must have looked nuts because I said, ‘Why?’ And he gave me a compliment I can live on forever. He said, ‘Because of what you brought to it,’ ” Akers recalled.

While the song list for her two shows, 7 and 9:30 p.m. Monday at the Greer Cabaret, was still in flux, Akers said she will definitely perform a song by Ryback, as well as “a song that made me laugh. It’s Lieber and Stoller’s ‘Ready to Begin Again,” written for Peggy Lee. At my ripe age, we are always beginning again, especially for singers.”

She joked that cabaret queen Marilyn Maye “had set the bar so goddamn high” by continuing to perform nearly more than 25 songs in her concerts.

“I thought that by the time I hit 80, maybe I’d do a little more travel, stay with my sons for weeks at a time, do things like, you know, life,” Akers said. “And here I am at 76, and it’s clearly not possible. You never want to retire if you’re doing something you love.”

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