Karen Akers' Cleopatra-esque appearance and wide-ranging musical talent have been godsends and curses.
"I'm not silly enough to think that my looks don't have something to do with my success," says the six-foot, high-cheekboned actress and cabaret singer, who'll perform at the Cinegrill tonight through July 26.
But Akers has been neither easily cast in movies nor always comfortable with her height as a singer. "You have no idea what is was like growing up tall. It's really rough," she said, listing TV auditions in which height or appearance cost her roles.
"I would lose roles because I'm unusual looking," Akers explained. "Height is sometimes a problem. Sometimes the cheekbones get in the way. (Casting directors) see this sort of elegant facade and don't know there's a funny lady inside."
And there have been some critical comments about Akers' sometimes limited stage movements.
"Working with Tommy Tune (on "Nine"), who's 6 foot 6, made me a lot happier about my body on stage." she says. 'I'm much freer now than I ever was."
Akers' singing, acting and her looks all combined, however, for a Theater World Award and Tony nomination for best featured actress in "Nine," a 1982 Fellini-inspired play. She also won a cameo role in Mike Nichols' "Heartburn," with Jack Nicholson, where Akers was cast as a witch. She also had a singing part in "The Purple Rose of Cairo."
Although looking vampish with her angular face and glossy fuchsia nails, Akers prefers to emphasize the cerebral rather than the physical. "I'm not a physical performer. I'm physical only in that you can read an awful lot in my face, I'm told."
Part-Russian, Austrian, Swiss-Italian and Scots-Irish, the polyglot Akers grew up in Manhattan listening to Broadway scores, classical music and calypso, singing folk-songs in the early '70s and eventually earning kudos as a cabaret artist in the early 1980s.
The versatile 40-year-old has an eclectic taste in music: Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Kurt Weill, Stephen Sondheim, Peter Allen. Her smoky alto has been likened to that of Peggy Lee, Lena Horne and Judy Garland, though Akers is stylistically linked with the French singer Edith Piaf.
"Something about the directness with which she sang--that quality got through to me as a child," Akers recalled. "I just sort of knew that if I were singing that sincerity and immediacy are what I would want to achieve.
"In my mind I can be someone else singing the song. I may not be a lady who goes home with a different date every night, but it doesn't mean I can't sing a song from the point of view of a hooker and have fun with it and be real," Akers said. "I place a lot of faith in words, and I've chosen songs that have meaningful lyrics."
Akers' penchant for performing a wide range of popular standbys or relatively unknown songs has admittedly stifled a recording career since her 1981 PBS-born LP, "Presenting Karen Akers."
"One reason I haven't got a recording contract is that the record companies don't have a clear idea of what age group I sing for," she said. "A lot of really good songs are being written--I wish they'd find me before they get recorded." Among the new songs Akers likes is material she sings by Craig Carnelia: "Just a Housewife," "You Can Have the TV" and "Met a Man Today." In her act, she also sings standards by everyone from Lerner and Loewe to Lennon and McCartney.
However, Akers' eclecticism does have limits. "Someone wanted me to do 'Short People,' by Randy Newman," Akers recalled. "I said no."