Kander & Ebb & All That Jazz

By Andrew Poretz . . .

It was an electrifying Monday night at Karen Mason’s sold-out Birdland concert, an homage to her mentors, John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote some of the most memorable scores in modern Broadway history, for shows including Cabaret and Chicago.

The performance was off to a rousing start with its title song, “All That Jazz,” from Chicago. Mason, looking radiant in a white suit and newly silver hair, took in the love of an adoring audience.  She has a charming, self-deprecating humor, and said of her white pumps, “Wearing these heels, the air is a little thinner up here!” She confessed to pre-show jitters.  “I’ve been a nervous wreck all day,” surprising herself, since she’s “been doing this for 150 years.” 

“Maybe This Time” was written for Kaye Ballard, though Liza Minnelli scored the big hit of this widely covered tune, Mason said.  She sang rubato before the arrangement shifted to a strong, insistent pace.  One could sense the protagonist coming into her power, and believe her assertion that “something’s bound to begin.” 

Kander and Ebb had a long history with Mason, who regaled the crowd with her first meeting with the pair, along with her own origin story.  Astonishing fact:  the team wrote an entire musical (the never-staged Golden Gate) just for an audition! The star performed “One of the Smart Ones” from this “lost” musical. 

Mason likes to think of Kander as “The Vamp King,” and Christopher Denny made the point for her by playing the instantly identifiable opening vamps to songs like “All that Jazz,” and “Theme from New York, New York.”  The latter song, a hit for both Liza Minnelli and an even bigger one for Frank Sinatra, is one of those overplayed songs that has become overlooked by dint of its ubiquity.  Mason completely reworked the song, turning it into more of a torch song for someone yearning for the experience of this great city.  Her sumptuous singing here was reminiscent of the late Nancy LaMott, who, along with Mason, were the first singers to do continuous long runs at Don’t Tell Mama.

Segueing into a pair of songs about chasing dreams, Mason’s powerful rendition of “Colored Lights” from The Rink created a musical vibe of being inside a kaleidoscope.

Mason’s stories of her time in the Kander and Ebb revue “And the World Goes ‘Round” were quite funny.  She had to roller skate in the show, and was admittedly a bit of a klutz.  She acknowledged Karen Ziemba, her co-star from that production, who was quite the skater, and was among Broadway and cabaret luminaries such as Lee Roy Reams, Penny Fuller and Karen Akers in the audience tonight.

Good old Shirley Devore, the protagonist of the charming “Ring Them Bells” (introduced by Liza Minnelli in “Liza with a Z” on television), had to fly around the world to discover that her true love, Norm Saperstein, lived next door at Five Riverside.  Mason recorded it for the cast album of When the World Goes Round, but it was cut.  Here, it was something of a bonus track.  The song is filled with wonderful references to defunct entities like TWA and Chase Manhattan, “where I’ve got a friend,” referencing the bank’s long-forgotten tag line.

John Kander – Karen Mason

A great treat was the reveal that John Kander, now a sprightly 95, was present.  (Fred Ebb passed away in 2004.)  Kander, clearly enjoying himself tremendously, stood when called out by Mason.  He seemed enormously touched by the lengthy standing ovation he received.  Later, he leapt to his feet for a standing ovation for Mason, and happily chatted with admirers and posed for photos.

Clearly buoyed by Kander’s appearance, Mason killed it with her emotional interpretation of “The World Goes ‘Round,” backed by a bluesy arrangement, with pitch-perfect phrasing that perfectly delineated the song’s meaning. 

Karen Akers – Karen Mason – Karen Ziemba

No Barry Kleinbort-directed show is complete without special lyrics.  He added a witty section to “Cabaret”, here in part:

I grew up in the middle of suburbia

Where lack of live performance would disturb ya

A nightclub was a place that might be raided

And a cabaret was a film that Joel Grey did…

The masterful, marvelous Karen Mason can be counted on for a stellar show, her interpretive skills and delivery better than ever.  Her charm, warmth and humor were displayed throughout.  The fine music and show direction, arrangements, and an energized crowd made for a wonderful evening of intimate cabaret.  She will appear at Birdland for a holiday show on December 14, 2022.  Information about her upcoming shows can be found at karenmason.com.

Karen Mason

Kander & Ebb & All That Jazz

March 28, 2022

Director:  Barry Kleinbort

Piano/music director: Christopher Denny

Bass:  Ritt Henn

Birdland Jazz

314 West 44th Street, NYC

Photos: Maryann Lopinto