Karen Akers

ll Music Guide Review

Any artist who can simply take the New York Times review of her show and print it as the liner notes to her album based on the show must be considered critically acclaimed. But Karen Akers isn't just showing off by using Stephen Holden's review of her performance at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel in the CD booklet for Simply Styne; clearly, she thinks Holden got the point of the show, and she wants listeners to get it, too. Akers is a nightclub performer, which means that every year or so she comes up with a new act, usually with some help (in this case, Eric Michael Gillett gets credit for conceiving and directing). This is to say, she uses a theme or organizing principle to select, sequence, and interpret a group of songs, most of them from stage musicals, to make a particular point. She then records an album encapsulating the act. As Holden reveals, Simply Styne, which consists entirely of songs with music composed by Jule Styne, is really anything but simple. More accurately, it might be called "Subverting Styne," although the songwriter, were he alive to hear it, certainly wouldn't mind. Styne had a long career, at first writing independent songs and songs for movies, mostly in the 1940s and mostly with words by Sammy Cahn. He then moved to New York and wrote for Broadway, scoring big hit shows in the '50s and '60s. His music was tuneful and usually cheery, and the lyrics often reflected positively romantic or sentimental moods.

Akers and Gillett, however, are having none of that. The heart of Simply Styne consists of obscure Styne songs presumably dug out of the vaults by Gillett, songs like "Absent-Minded Me," which was cut from +Funny Girl before it opened, and "How Could I Know?," which was part of the score of +Prettybelle, a musical that closed during out-of-town tryouts without ever reaching Broadway. These are minor-key tunes with melancholy, even bitter lyrics, often written by Robert Merrill. Before Akers begins singing them, however, she does take on some of Styne's better-known songs. But she recontextualizes them, notably in the "I've Heard That Song Before" suite comprised of five songs and covering tracks eight and nine. The songs include some of Styne's major hits from the end of World War II, with lyrics treating the romantic separations caused by the war, such as "I Don't Want to Walk Without You" and "I'll Walk Alone." But Akers sings them with a dry, sarcastic tone as her pianist, Don Rebic, contributes a series of clichéd statements that bad boyfriends make, e.g., "My wife just doesn't understand me" and "Trust me, I'll never even look at another woman." This all leads Akers into the show's key song, the flashy revenge-patter tune from the revue +Two on the Aisle, "If (You Hadn't But You Did)," in which a woman explains to a man why she's just shot him. From there, the obscurities take over, and by the end Jule Styne seems like a songwriter with as many romantically jaded songs as his onetime partner Stephen Sondheim. He isn't, of course, but Akers has come up with just enough songs in that vein, and has reinterpreted others along with them, to make Styne her own and to make him over in her own image, at least for an hour. ~ William Ruhlmann, All Music Guide