Cabaret


Masterful Mason at the Encore
"The Sweetest of Nights"

By Rob Lester

Karen Mason
Opening Night: Michael Feinstein, Karen, Harvey Evans,
and Lorna Dallas

On the same night that baseball's World Series came to its conclusion, Karen Mason was responsible for a different kind of home run. To extend the metaphor, with "hits" and "scores" in the musical sense, she really knocked one out of the park, the showstopper being (appropriately enough) "The Winner Takes It All." Although she didn't mention the sports event, she is from Chicago, and her winning musical team consists of musical director/pianist Christopher Denny and bassist Jered Egan. The show at The Encore on West 47th Street, which will be performed through November 4, features many songs from her new album The Sweetest of Nights, but is not a whole new ballgame, as she also performs some tunes from earlier CDs. She was in great form.

On opening night, Karen was introduced by Michael Feinstein who talked about being a longtime fan. He said he was hooked after seeing her Christmas show, thanks to her handling of the audience, stage persona and her singing talent, which he already loved from her first recordings.

Opening with two big Broadway numbers with exciting arrangements, the evening begins strongly. In "Almost Like Being in Love" from Brigadoon, the introductory verse is placed in the middle, and Karen has fun using a guttural sound in her pronunciation of "Loch Lomond," adding the same sound to the next words "and be home in half an hour." She projects radiance and joy in her interpretation. West Side Story's "Something's Coming," sets its usual tone of anticipation, but she finds more than one mood. Later in the show, other bits of music from the West Side Story score are incorporated into a specialty arrangement of "Steppin' Out with My Baby," the only piece in the show she hasn't recorded yet. It allows her to have fun and show her sunny spirited side, which suits her well and seems to be her natural and favored state of mind. As a cool change of pace, she sings a large portion of the song just with the nimble bass playing of Jered Egan. I was disappointed that Christopher Denny doesn't have an extended solo anywhere, as I've always admired his touch and it would be nice to give him a real moment or two in the spotlight. Nevertheless, his accompaniment and musicianship are expert. Some of the well-though-out arrangements are a collaboration between Christopher and Barry Kleinbort, who directed the act.

Karen's strong voice and ability to belt are well known by her fans. After her early knock-'em-dead numbers were followed by sustained applause and cheers, she casually remarked, "Well, it's good you like loud." Cabaret legend Julie Wilson was in the audience and later in the show, she burst out with the comment, "You've got some set of pipes!" The two exchanged banter for a bit. I would have enjoyed hearing a little more talk between songs, as I suspect there are some interesting, untold stories that could be shared. Down to earth and likable, with a hearty laugh, Karen is relaxed in what patter there is and in the looser moments of the upbeat songs, such as the playfully flirtatious "When in Rome." Her unpretentiousness is refreshing and if it means she doesn't project the mystery and larger-than-life persona of other divas, so be it. She comes off as friendly and real, never aloof or cold. Better nice than ice.

Perhaps I've come to take her still-exciting belting and power "wow"-ers for granted, but I am increasingly impressed with her approach to a ballad. Her facial expressions, stage presence and focus make her an in-person experience that's rewarding for an attentive audience. The tenderness and colors she puts into phrases show both vocal control and her skills as an actress. But actorly choices don't get in the way of the musicality or really singing the notes. A devastating song written by Garry Bormet and the late Brian Lasser, "What's Wrong with This Picture?" is the dramatic highlight, a heartbreaking story of a couple growing apart over the years. It's done to perfection, nothing wrong with that picture-perfect presentation.

The act, like the same-named CD is produced by Paul Rolnick who co-wrote (with Henry Cory) one of the songs, "Cold Enough to Cross." Karen praised Paul's work and added, "and I was smart enough to marry him." She was also smart enough to save the most fitting moment for the CD's title song. Its "I wish you ..." lyric serves as a toast and affectionate farewell wish. She made it her encore at The Encore. Like the winning baseball team, she's at the top of her game.

Karen Mason continues at The Encore through Nov. 7
226 West 47th St.
Thursdays thru Mondays: 9 pm (except Friday, Nov. 4 :at 7 pm)
Reservations: 212-221-3960 after 4 pm
$30 cover plus 2-drink minimum  


Photo: Maryann Lopinto