Karen Akers

The Kisses, the Bites, the Humor of Rodgers and Hart

Published: September 19, 2010

An insomniac’s fantasy of a dream lover hovering over your bed night after night; a prayer for true love that is answered by the sudden appearance of the perfect mate; a mystical moment of romantic déjà vu: those are experiences described in “Dancing on the Ceiling,” “Blue Moon” and “Where or When,” three of the most famous songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. To hear Karen Akers sing them in her revelatory Rodgers and Hart show, “Dancing on the Ceiling” at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, is almost like listening to them for the first time.

Ms. Akers, accompanied by Don Rebic on piano and Dick Sarpola on bass, doesn’t take a phrase of Hart’s lyrics for granted. Her wistful, witty, carefully considered interpretations are tender deconstructions that turn “moon, June, spoon” conventions into private thoughts.

Singing “Blue Moon” on Wednesday evening, Ms. Akers turned her face skyward, and wearing a slightly crazy smile, issued a prayer to the heavens (“You knew just what I was there for”). The moon responded by delivering “the only one my arms will ever hold” — the spirit made flesh. Mr. Rebic’s delicately jaunty pianism, with its echoes of Satie, consistently held back, leaving her room to explore.

The show, directed by Eric Michael Gillett, is more than a scrupulous reconsideration of a classic songwriting canon. Acting the songs from deep inside, her expression continually changing, Ms. Akers added a subtle element of humor. She tacitly acknowledged that it may be insane to believe in all that romantic stuff, especially nowadays. But underneath the hard-shelled cynicism of the hook-up age, she implied, the same currents of longing and loneliness still run deep. The biographical element was cursory, leaving the songs to suggest the story of Hart’s unhappy, alcoholic life.

The show is roughly divided into two sections. The first concentrates on songs of willful naïveté in which dreams come true and happily-ever-after is right at hand. Gradually the idealism dissipates, and descriptions about the ups and downs of actual relationships take over. On Wednesday, Ms. Akers invested “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again” and “It Never Entered My Mind” with their full measure of disillusion, without sounding bitter or melodramatic.

In her upbeat readings, the hard emotional lessons of domesticity — “the pulled-out fur of cat and cur” — were valuable training sessions for the next go-round. In Ms. Akers’s shows a certain demureness always obtains. In her first-person-singular version of “The Lady Is a Tramp,” she hesitated a split second before applying to herself the word “tramp” — lightly.