Cabaret singer and actress Karen Akers was born Karen Orth-Pallavicini in New York City on October 13, 1945. Her ancestry was a mixture of European stock: her immigrant father, a member of the European nobility who dropped his title when he came to America, was of Austrian and Swiss/Italian heritage; her American-born mother had Russian, Norwegian, and French forebears on one side of her family and Scots-Irish ones on the other. Akers initially aspired to be a folksinger in the 1960s, but she also began auditioning for Broadway shows, and by the 1970s was leaving her acoustic guitar behind as she appeared in nightclubs. By the start of the 1980s, she had achieved sufficient prominence on the nightclub circuit that PBS gave her her own special, Presenting Karen Akers, which in turn was released in audio form by Sterling Records as her debut album in 1981.
Akers made her Broadway debut in Nine, a musical directed by Tommy Tune and based on the autobiographical Federico Fellini film 8 1/2, playing the part of Luisa Contini, the wife of promiscuous film director Guido Contini, a role that allowed her to sing the Maury Yeston-penned songs "My Husband Makes Movies" and "Be On Your Own." The show opened May 9, 1982, and had a successful run of 732 performances, closing February 4, 1984. Akers won a Theatre World Award for her performance and was one of three actresses in the show nominated for the Tony Award for Featured Actress in a Musical, losing to her fellow cast member Liliane Montevecchi. Nine was recorded for an original Broadway cast album released by Columbia Records.
In 1983, Akers gave her first concert at Carnegie Hall. She made her film debut in Woody Allen's comic fantasy The Purple Rose of Cairo in 1985 and was featured on the original soundtrack album released by MCA Records. She followed this in 1986 with a featured role in Heartburn, director Mike Nichols' film of Nora Ephron's autobiographical drama, and in 1988 had a part in the comedy Vibes. Meanwhile, she had also begun making guest appearances on network television series, acting in an episode of the popular comedy Cheers in December 1987, and she found the time to record her second album, In a Very Unusual Way, released by Cabaret Records in 1987.
Akers starred in another PBS special, Karen Akers: On Stage at Wolf Trap, which was released as a home video by View Video in 1989. She then returned to Broadway in Grand Hotel, a musical adaptation of the novel and film, again directed by Tommy Tune with a score by Robert Wright, George Forrest, and Maury Yeston; Akers played Raffaela, the confidante to the Countess, singing the songs "Twenty-Two Years," "Villa on a Hill," "What She Needs (What You Need)," and "How Can I Tell Her?" The show opened November 12, 1989, for a successful run of 1,018 performances through April 19, 1992, and was belatedly recorded for an original Broadway cast album released by RCA Victor Records in 1992. Meanwhile, she had recorded her third album, Unchained Melodies, for DRG Records.
In September 1993, Akers married Kevin Power; the couple eventually settled in the south of France. Meanwhile, Akers ascended to the highest ranks of cabaret performers, appearing regularly in such prestigious venues as the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel in New York. In June 1994, she released her fourth album, Just Imagine..., again on DRG Records. Under Paris Skies, an album consisting entirely of songs sung in French, was issued by Cabaret Records in January 1996, and in September 1997 DRG released Live from Rainbow & Stars, a collection recorded at the New York nightclub then adjoining the Rainbow Room at the top of Rockefeller Center. Feels Like Home came out on DRG in May 2001. In 2002, she was given the Board of Directors Award from the Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs for lifetime achievement. If We Only Have Love, her eighth album, was released by DRG in June 2004. At that time, she was already booked to appear at the Café Carlyle of the Carlyle Hotel in New York starting on October 18 and to return to the Oak Room for six weeks starting April 12, 2005. DRG released her ninth album, Like It Was, on June 6, 2006, and her tenth, Simply Styne, on April 1, 2008. ~ William Ruhlmann