Timeless - Karen Mason at NJPAC
Karen Mason is one of the best cabaret singers around today, and it was a pleasure to see one of her two performances Saturday night (March 31) at New Jersey performing Arts Center's lovely Chase Room.
Mason was at her considerable vocal best as she sang a variety of songs from the American songbook along with a few new, less familiar songs by contemporary composers whose work is in the classic style. Add in a couple of of songs from ABBA reflecting her featured role in Mamma Mia! on Broadway. A veteran of cabaret who is equally at home on the Broadway stage, Mason's melodious pipes display power, and a clarity and accuracy which is stunning. These attributes are always placed at the service of a thoughtful interpretation of her lyrics. Seeing her in her fourth NJPAC appearance, I was reminded that, after seeing her perform at New York's Cabaret Convention, I happily made it a point to see one of her appearances in Sunset Boulevard, in which she was understudy to Glenn Close.
On a couple of occasions, Mason will string two songs together or interpolate a short section from another song to extend the range of the one which she is singing. However, she essentially sings complete versions of her selections. By doing so, she allows her audience to experience the selections in their full arc. This show of respect for both her material and her audience sets her above and apart from some of her fellow artists.
Svelte in a becoming black pants suit with a long-sleeved, knee-length jacket inlaid with a white-sequined floral pattern, Mason displays nice variety in her selections right from the top, going from the brash ("All That Jazz") to the humorous ("Just in Time") to the heartfelt ("A Whole New World") to the wistful ("Watch What Happens"). Then she ups the ante with a truly beautiful, moving and poignant rendition of "I Will Wait For You." The latter two selections are the heart and soul of the Umbrellas of Cherbourg score.
Exceptionally effective is her version of the anthem "The Quest" (Man of La Mancha). At the start, it has a first person feel (as songs in cabaret usually do), but when she comes to the words, "... one man scorned and covered with scars ...", we hear it as a powerful piece of story-telling in her gorgeous rendition. A short section of "Stormy Weather" serves as a prelude to a moving "When the Sun Comes Out." Seeing and hearing Mason's terrific and terrifically funny "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" is enough to convince anybody that the time is past due for Karen Mason to be cast to create a starring role in a Broadway musical. Another highlight among Mason's twenty selections is a jazzy "Taking a Chance on Love" featuring the accompaniment of bassist Jered Egan. Mason's musical director-pianist Christopher Denny lends excellent support, maintaining an unusually low profile and keeping the spotlight on Mason.
Regrettably, Karen Mason and her director Barry Kleinbort have not created a theme which would provide all her terrific work a full theatrical resonance. The idea that each of these songs is Timeless, in that each can be returned to again and again and reveal new facets could apply to any songs Mason would choose to sing. It is to be hoped that Mason and her people would find more specific contexts for her cabaret shows, whether they be single themed (i.e., composers, eras, styles, shows, story arcs), or contain a couple of compatible extended set pieces within each show. After all, Mason is a fine actress and it would be wonderful to hear her tell us more about the music and her feelings about it.
I am not being churlish here. I have no reservations about the delightful show that Mason has brought to NJPAC. She clearly demonstrates with Timeless that she is a top contender among today's best cabaret singers. However, her talent is so special that it is evident that working within a tighter and deeper framework, she could be at the head of the class.
Cabaret Concert: Karen Mason Timeless performed two shows on Saturday, March 31, 2007 at the Chase Room at NJ Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), One Center Street, Newark, NJ. 07105. Box Office: 888-466-5722: online: www.njpac.org.