by Marilyn Lester
Broadway actress/singer and cabaret doyenne, Karen Akers, is a self-confessed Francophile and a lover of stories – two ingredients that add up to a passion for the French song style of chanson. For those who love this lyric-driven genre, Akers is the go-to diva, bar none. Thus, in Vive La Chanson!, Akers returns to her large repertoire of these songs, most of them attributed to the iconic Edith Piaf. But first she begins with English, brilliantly interpreting “I’m Not Afraid,” based on Jacques Brel’s tune “Fils De” with lyrics by Rod McKuen. From there it’s a heartbreaking rendition of “The Last Time I Saw Paris” (music by Jerome Kern) with Oscar Hammerstein’s remembrance of the beloved city and lament for her fate in wartime. Immediately, Akers lifts the mood, gliding into “Sous le Ciel de Paris (Under Paris Skies)” (Hubert Giraud and Jean Dréjac), the lilting post-war tune of gaiety and all that is immortally Parisian.
This intelligence of design is characteristic of Akers’ approach to her work. Smarts are in her DNA; her text is engaging and informative. In setting up her songs, Akers acts out the English narrative first, slipping seamlessly into the number. She’s reserved by nature – sophisticated, graceful and elegant, but that seeming coolness disappears when she sings and volcanoes of emotion erupt. Chanson, which follows the rhythms of French language, typically describes the ups and downs of living; it’s about the tragedies of life as well as its hopes and dreams. And so it was that Akers effortlessly delivered the songs (all written for Piaf) “Padam Padam” (Norbert Glanzberg and Henri Contet), an onomatopoeia about a relentless tune driving the singer crazy, “L’Accordeoniste” (Michel Emer), about a love lost in a war, and “Une Enfant” (Charles Aznavour) about a teenage runaway and her tragic end. Akers’ acute acting skills were especially on target with her renditions of two songs written for Piaf by the singer-songwriter simply known as Barbara: the achingly beautiful “Drouot” and “L’Aigle Noir.” In her maturity, Akers’ approach is more considered than ever before. Her contralto has become more mellow. Her tones maintain their clarity with a beautifully controlled vibrato.
Iconic Piaf tunes “Milord” (Marguerite Monnot and Georges Moustaki) and “La Vie En Rose” (Louis Guglielmi/Louiguy and Edith Piaf with English lyrics by Mack David) were highlights of the set. Akers also sang two relatively modern chanson, both pop and melodic, “Un Jour Un Enfant,” the 1969 Eurovision song contest winner (Emil Stern and Eddy Marnay) and “Chanson” from The Baker’s Wife (Stephen Schwartz). In English Akers sang “Paris in the Rain” (George Van Parys and Jeremy Sams) and a bluesy “Paris Is a Lonely Town” (Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg). The piece de resistance was the penultimate number, sung with particular passion in both French: “Un Pays Pour Nous” and in English: “Somewhere” (Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim). Dedicated to hope in our now “difficult and dangerous” time, Akers’ delivery was mighty and powerful. Akers knows the story song is about interpreting the lyric with an arc to a climax and a dénouement. There’s no shouting, no belting for the sake of it, just well-considered modulation that brings meaning through the controlled power of the voice. Akers’ musical director and pianist was Alex Rybeck. If a piano could play in French, it did so under his hands. Rybeck’s impassioned and lyrical playing perfectly matched Akers’ delivery note for note throughout and in the encore number, “Non, je ne regrette rien,” which left no doubt that Akers is truly at the top of her game.
Winter Rhythms: Karen Akers in Vive La Chanson!, December 3 at 7 PM
Urban Stages, 259 W. 30th St., 212-695-5131, www.urbanstages.org
Photos: Maryann Lopinto