Karen Akers




Music Review: Karen Akers sings Cole Porter at the Kennedy Center                   By Nelson Pressley

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"I'm Throwing a Ball Tonight" was the statement-making first number of Karen Akers's all-Cole Porter cabaret show Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. The lanky chanteuse created a characteristically swellegant mood; her pianist and bass player sported black tie, and Akers's sleeveless black gown featured accents that exactly matched her coppery red hair.

Upscale is the natural way to go with Porter, of course. The 90-minute performance in the sold-out Terrace Theater glittered with Porter's giddy name-dropping and product adoration (Cadillac, the Ritz). The fictional characters were typically upper-crust; see "Thank You So Much Mrs. Lowsborough-Goodby," with its genteel melody leavened by dry sarcasm. (The lady's soiree was a dud.)

The Akers style, well-branded by now, is cool as champagne on ice. The lyrics were crystalline and the melodies smooth and straightforward; Akers's smoky alto often seemed to ally itself with Jon Nazdin's steady bass, while pianist and musical director Don Rebic provided energy and color. It was a suave arrangement all around.

Still, the frisky numbers weren't as satisfying as the dusky ones, in part because a little of Porter's pranksterish wordplay can go a long way. Such verbal high jinks as "If a holy man can/If a gangly Anglican can" from "Can Can" were fine, even if that number sounded like a reprise of "Anything Goes," and even if Akers offered more punning verses of both songs after the applause had died down . . . and even if "Come to the Supermarket" and "The Physician" peddled similarly wordy comic catalogues. It was a party, after all, and sometimes one indulges a bit too much.

All that was redeemed by the gorgeous minor-key longing of "It's All Right With Me," the torch song aimed at a rebound partner ("It's the wrong time/And the wrong place . . . "). Akers sang it with quietly fervent melancholy while Rebic churned as if in full Rachmaninoff mode, and the emotional turbulence was splendid.

Likewise the "optimistic blues," as Akers put it, of "Where Have You Been," and the whisper-soft "Begin the Beguine" that reluctantly embraced the song's rhythm and then absolutely glowed. It was like being fireside, which suggested that while Akers can be an able musical raconteur, her greater gift is for stoking the embers.