Small rooms, big time

Karen Akers plays the RRazz Room, in the Ramada Inn in New Hope, from Wednesday through May 3.
Karen Akers plays the RRazz Room, in the Ramada Inn in New Hope, from Wednesday through May 3. (A.D. AMOROSI / For The Inquirer)
Posted: April 25, 2014

Modern cabaret artistes Joey Arias and Sherry Vine sat in their Ramada Inn suite in New Hope between sets at the hotel's recently opened RRazz Room and talked about how much they love RRazz as a venue for their updated old-school cabaret.

"It's high-class dinner theater," Vine said.

"It's Frank Lloyd Wright under a Japanese neon sign," Arias said.

The Manhattan-based duo sold out both nights of their early-April run, and RRazz co-owner Robert Kotonly has re-booked them for August.

It seems there's a hungry audience for classic cabaret, as attested by full houses at RRazz and Morgan's Cabaret at the Prince Music Theater, which reopened in August 2013 after being shuttered in bankruptcy for three years.

"We had to figure out what worked and what didn't before reopening, and [Prince board member] Karen Lotman knew cabaret worked," says Jamey Hines, who oversees bookings in the big theater well as the 148-seat Morgan's. "No sooner than we opened our doors, the subscription tickets for Morgan's sold out - a truly hot ticket."

That 2013-14 lineup included Barbara Cook, Patti LuPone, and Karen Akers, who performs Wednesday through May 3. And the theater hosted singer Mark Nadler's Weimar-tinged I'm a Stranger Here Myself cabaret several weeks ago.

Hines says, "People want subscriptions without even knowing who'll play next. . . .   Where else in Philadelphia can you see this now?"

Now, to be sure, but before RRazz popped and the Prince reopened, there had been a lull in classic cabaret, as much due to spaces unwilling to take chances as to those that had shuttered.

"The scene changes constantly," says Bob Egan, Bucks County's "Mr. Cabaret," who started the piano bar and cabaret at New Hope's legendary Odette's in 1985 (it closed after flooding in 2006), then moved to the Ramada Inn for a time.

He said he was was surprised to not see more cabarets and piano bars in downtown Philadelphia during the lull, but is enthusiastic about RRazz, where he does monthly showcases of up-and-coming talent, such as Philly's Eddie Bruce, who performs this weekend.

"RRazz," he says, "has a great mix of Broadway, cabaret legends, and comedians appealing to younger audiences," along with the traditional adult crowd.

Adults are the reason Kotonly and Rory Paull, both 50, brought their RRazz concept back to the East Coast after its successful eight-year run in San Francisco ended in 2012.

"Entertainment for grown-ups is what I call it," says Kotonly, who wanted to create a place for people his age who won't stand all night in big crowd while being bombarded by high-decibel anything. "I like to see people dressed up, sipping cocktails at a table where there is intimacy between performer and audience."

The 130-seat venue's lineup includes Ethel Merman's daughter Varla Jean Merman (May 15-18), chanteuse Julie Budd (May 30-31), and epic singing actress Lainie Kazan (June 27-28).

For those who savor cabaret - the ruined romanticism and tipsy pleasure it conjures, the closeness it embraces - no one more embodies it better than Akers. A singer of graceful poignance and command, with an etymologist's love of language, she's a creature of such warm Manhattan spaces as the Café Carlyle and the Algonquin's Oak Room.

"Perhaps that's because I started as a folksinger - mostly the songs of Carolyn Hester, Leonard Cohen, and Joan Baez," she says of a career that has taken her from crooning French chansons in Amsterdam to strutting the Broadway stage in Nine (1982) and Grand Hotel (1989).

When she started crafting her cabaret act, she initially focused on one composer/lyricist ("First You Dream - Akers Sings Kander & Ebb" or "Anything Goes: Akers Sings Cole Porter"). Lately, she's tackled multiple composers, as in next week's "Time Flies," a mix of Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Cyndi Lauper.

"I sing better now than I did 30 or more years ago, or at least more intelligently, I hope," she says. "Now is when age, experience, and, hopefully, a little wisdom come into the picture. Plus, I'm glad my wobbly vibrato is no longer there."

Local venues including the Prince, the late Odette's ("my treasured tryout room"), and the RRazz loom large for Akers, as does the memory of the "gorgeous domed room" at the long-gone Cabaret Atop the Bellevue.

"I owe a huge debt to the loyal fans in that area who took many a journey with me in the late '80s and '90s, right up through 2001, after Sept. 11, when I called to ask if Odette's still wanted me to come the following week for my booking," says Akers.

"They assured me people were anxious to get back to normalcy, and eagerly awaiting me. Philadelphia and its environs will always have a place in my heart."

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