By Melissa Griegel . . .
Karen Mason graced the stage of the main dining room of the Birdland Jazz Club on August 8th, with a room packed full of friends, fans, and fellow industry artists including many guests from the world of cabaret and the American Popular Song Society. A performer with a career spanning over 40 years, Mason is a 13-time MAC Award winner and was honored in 2019 with the MAC Lifetime Achievement Award. She has headlined solo shows at venues such as Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, and on Broadway, she originated the role of Tanya in Abba’s Mamma Mia! And played Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard both on Broadway and in Los Angeles.
The joyous evening at Birdland was a celebration of the 30-year-collaboration of Mason with her accompanist/musical director Christopher Denny and director/composer/lyricist Barry Kleinbort. Her affection for Denny was obvious on stage both in the way she looked to him at the piano as she sang, and in the stories she told about their collaboration. The two have performed original music plus their favorite arrangements of well-known songs so often during the past three decades that there is a nice ebb and flow between the music and vocals and the ease of stage banter.
Mason started off the set with “Zing! Went the Strings of my Heart!” (James F. Hanley) and then eased into “Just in Time (Jules Styne/Betty Comden/Adolph Green). In between songs, the confident and funny storyteller looked back on her career, filling us in on how this musical triad came to be, and what some of the highlights have been. Mason’s first collaboration was with good friend and music director Brian Lasser. Before launching into ‘Take a Chance on Love’ (Vernon Duke/John Fetter/John LaTouche), she spoke fondly of premiering that song with Lasser in 1998 at the opening of Arci’s Place. “It is still one of my favorites, and I have done it at almost every show,” Mason said, “We even wedged it into a Christmas show! Brian introduced me to the world of writers. He did everything, and I just memorized it and wore an outfit.” She talked about the time that she had a crush on a bartender in Chicago and Lasser wrote her a song called “I Made a New Friend,” which she then sang lovingly.
When Lasser became ill with AIDS, he introduced Mason to good friend Christopher Denny, who began working with Mason, and became her full-time accompanist and music director when Lasser passed away in 1992. Her first show with Denny was August 5, 1992 at the Russian Tea Room, so this 30-year celebration was almost to the day they began their partnership. Denny suggested bringing Barry Kleinbort into the mix, and the three of them haven’t looked back. Another important man also entered her life when she met and then married songwriter/record producer Paul Rolnick. “Marrying a writer has its perks,” Mason laughed prior to singing “Talking to the Moon,” a song Rolnick wrote for her.
A fun look into her career came when Mason talked about the short-lived Broadway show Wonderland in which she starred as Queen of Hearts. “I loved that show,” she shared. “Sadly, it only lasted a month. Barry made me a gift of this next song for a performance I did shortly after the show closed. I sang it that night, and never did it again, but I am going to sing it tonight!” After singing “Finding Wonderland” (Frank Wildhorn/Jack Murphy) from the show, she sang the Kleinbort song. He took the melody of “Show Me” (Frederick Loewe) and wrote parody lyrics about the untimely closing of Wonderland.
Mason’s show was filled with songs on which she put her own unique spin. Some of the crowd favorites that night were “Everything Old is New Again” (Peter Allen/Carole Bayer Sager), and a mashup of “On Broadway” (Barry Mann/Cynthia Weill/Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller) and “Broadway Baby” (Stephen Sondheim). The evening was a celebration of music, of friendships, and career memories. After the show, Mason was surrounded by appreciative audience members who gathered to congratulate her on an illustrious career.
Photos by Melissa Griegel Photography