Karen Akers Salutes Cole Porter – Pizza on the Park

Cole Porter
Music and lyrics by Porter, in songs from Red, Hot and Blue, Hollywood Canteen, Anything Goes, Aladdin, Jubilee, Kiss Me Kate, The New Yorkers, Can-Can, and Nymph Errant

Karen Akers with Leigh Thompson (piano) & Sebastian Pennar (bass)

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 10 June, 2010
Venue: Pizza on the Park, Knightsbridge, London

The last time London saw Karen Akers was in 2008 at the Jermyn Street Theatre in her “Simply Styne” programme, the songs of Jule Styne. At the time we were mourning the loss of Pizza on the Park as a cabaret venue. It was going through a period of change or closure, which is why The American Songbook in London season was where it was. Now Karen is back in London and we are about to mourn once again the loss of Pizza on the Park as a cabaret venue. However, this time it really is final, for the Knightsbridge music-room (which for a while was called Larry’s Room following the death of the celebrated mouth-organist Larry Adler who often played there) is to close later in this month. A planning application has been accepted for the building of a boutique hotel on the site of the Pizza Express-owned restaurant which just happens to have a music room in the basement, one of the best in the country and one beloved by jazz musicians and cabaret artists alike. It was opened in 1982 by Peter Boizot, Pizza Express’s founder, out of his personal interest in jazz and cabaret, his other great interest being football and, in particular, Peterborough FC.

Now Knightsbridge really needs another hotel as much as H M The Queen needs another residence. Situated next door to the Lanesborough, a few yards from the Berkeley, within a stone’s throw of the Inter-Continental, the Four Seasons, the Hilton, the Dorchester and the Grosvenor House on Park Lane, not to mention all the hotels in Piccadilly, Pizza on the Park is the last real cabaret club left in the West End. After nearly thirty years it is savagery to let it go, merely because the landlord wants to redevelop the site. It’s all about money, of course, but what began as a kind of hobby of Boizot’s quickly became the favoured place of international singers and jazz musicians, regardless of how much cash it made or lost. But it is now to go the way of all things that cannot make enough profit. After an extension of three months that was then revoked, Pizza on the Park will finally close its doors on 18 June. The only good news is that entrepreneur Samuel Joseph, who has lately been promoting and staging artists at the Knightsbridge venue, is behind a new music venue opening at the Pheasantry in King’s Road, Chelsea, another Pizza Express outlet.

Meanwhile, the last three weeks in the life of Pizza on the Park have been programmed by Barry J. Mishon who has presented many artists there over the years. He tends to favour American singers, such as Andrea Marcovicci (recently been and gone) and Steve Ross, and currently Karen Akers, singing the repertoire of Cole Porter. Akers has become a mainstay of the US cabaret scene. No stranger to London, previous visits have found her in more serious mood and her ten albums include a wide compass of material, some of it in French. She is a noted actress from such Broadway shows as “Grand Hotel” and “Nine”; she has appeared in films including Mike Nichols’s “Heartburn” with Jack Nicholson, and in Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo”. She’s also had several television specials in the States.

Lately Karen Akers has been discovering the work of Cole Porter, although she has known the songs all her life. With Porter the problem is what to leave out from the hundreds of songs he wrote. Karen has assembled a nice mixture of the familiar and the rare, such as his early success with ‘Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love’ (“Paris”, 1928) and the relatively unknown ‘Where Have You Been?’ (“The New Yorkers”, 1930) to later songs from “Kiss Me Kate” and “Can-Can”. Porter is a gift to any singer because he never wrote a bad song. However, you need the élan and the elegance of a performer like Karen Akers to put across material that is often witty when it’s not being heavily romantic. However, Porter is never overly sentimental in either his music or his lyrics, and he was lucky to be able to write both for, had he only been able to compose music or just pen words, the songs would not have been the same.

You also need a performer who can enunciate Porter’s lyrics because they are packed with smart talk, that you could miss his bons mots unless perfect diction is on the menu, something Karen Akers has in abundance. Her voice rings out in a clear and very attractive contralto register and she enunciates every vowel and consonant perfectly. Just listen to her singing ‘Don’t Fence Me In’, for Cole an unlikely song that sounds more like Irving Berlin, and she can give it a pedigree that it was certainly never born with, translating it into a little gem. A rarity like ‘Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking’ from “Aladdin”, Cole’s only pantomime score, becomes a sultry point-number that is the epitome of Porter’s ‘list’ songs. And ‘Thank you so much, Mrs Lowsborough-Goodby’ is a delightful note of regret from a guest to her hostess who had a bad time at the lady’s weekend party. Karen Akers gives it the right sort of ironic touch. That and ‘The Tale of the Oyster’ is Porter at his cleverest and delightful best and Karen obviously enjoys performing Cole’s intimate little songs which are akin to one-act plays.

The more familiar songs are also made welcome on Karen Akers’s lips: ‘Begin the Beguine’, ‘Buddy Beware’, ‘Anything Goes’, ‘Ridin’ High’, ‘Always True to You in My Fashion’ and ‘It’s All Right With Me’. Towards the end of this superb set, a medley from “Can-Can” includes ‘I Love Paris’, ‘Allez-vous en’, ‘You Don’t Know Paree’ and the wonderfully witty title song. Leaving us with the advice to ‘Experiment’ in Cole Porter’s words (“Before you leave these portals to meet less fortunate mortals,there’s just one final message I would give to you.”), Karen Akers concludes the evening on a real high, having demonstrated what real cabaret is all about. Sadly Pizza on the Park will very soon no longer be the home for it.

  • Karen Akers is at Pizza on the Park, 11-13 Knightsbridge, London SW1 until Sunday 13 June 2010
  • Steve Ross plays the final week, 15-18 June
  • Tickets 08456 027 017
  • Pizza Express Live

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