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BROADWAY SINGER GETS INTIMATE; KAREN MASON HAD BIG SUPPORTING CAST IN ``SUNSET BOULEVARD,'' BUT SHE'S EQUALLY ADEPT STANDING ALONE IN HER CABARET ACT.

Byline: Reed Johnson Daily News Staff Writer

Being the star of a Broadway show takes talent, but being the life of the party takes real chutzpah.

Just ask Karen Mason. When Mason played ``Sunset Boulevard's'' Norma Desmond, filling in for Glenn Close, she had the splashiest props, costumes and supporting cast money could buy.

But tonight, when she reprises her cabaret act at the Cinegrill in Hollywood, Mason will be working without a safety net - to say nothing of a hydraulically engineered stage.

``With Norma Desmond, I had a moving set and 27 people around me,'' Mason says. ``You're not as reliant on your own devices. There's a trick to that, but to just be in the spotlight and have people pay attention to you for an hour is a different challenge.''

Evidently, it's a challenge the Chicago-born belter can handle. Though she's probably best-known to L.A. audiences as the fabulously deluded silent-screen diva in Andrew Lloyd Webber's blockbuster musical, Mason has acquired a passionate following among connoisseurs of the suddenly resurgent art of cabaret.

Since she first started singing at moody Windy City watering holes some 20 years ago, Mason has evolved from a girlish heart-tugger to a sophisticated and pleasantly offbeat vocal interpreter. Like most top supper-club crooners, she conceives her songs as three-minute mini-dramas, acting out the stories inside the words and notes.

These days, her regular haunt is Le Cabaret at Cite, a swanky Chicago salon perched 70 stories above Lake Shore Drive. But she also has received strong notices for appearances at such top-drawer Manhattan after-hours spots as Rainbow & Stars, the Russian Tea Room and Eighty-Eights.

``I was pretty lucky that when I started in Chicago, we were able to work five and six nights a week, and I think that's the only way you can get any real solid experience and knowledge of what it is to be in cabaret,'' says Mason, who never misses an opportunity to boost her beloved home town.

``You know it's always been a phenomenon to me, cabaret was kind of like the bastard child of theater. If you couldn't do anything else, you would use it as a showcase for your talent. I think people are realizing that there's more to it now.''

Though cabaret finally is receiving its due, Mason's success in it has been unusually bittersweet.

Eight years ago, on New Year's Day 1990, her longtime collaborator Brian Lasser was rushed to a Chicago hospital with a mysterious head-to-toe rash. An AIDS test was performed later that day, with devastating results.

``I felt like the whole world just kind of stopped,'' Mason remembers when the results showed Lasser to be HIV-positive. ``Nothing was moving. Nothing meant anything. I felt like someone had just come up and kicked me in the head. And my mom said to me over a period of weeks, `You know honey, you've got to stop ... because you've got time.' Because in my mind I already had buried him.''

After Lasser died in November 1992, it took Mason nearly three years before she felt ready to do cabaret again.

Ironically, that left her free to be cast in Amanda McBroom's ``Heartbeats'' at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, then as Close's standby when ``Sunset Boulevard'' came to Los Angeles in 1993.

All told, Mason gave nearly 300 performances as Norma Desmond over two years in L.A. and New York. After so many years of personifying the ideal of the wholesome Midwestern gal, Mason reveled in her turn as a demented Hollywood femme fatale.

``You kidding? Getting to be the lead in a big ol' stinking musical?!'' Mason says, turning on the brass. ``It was great. I got to go mad and kill somebody. And sing fabulous songs! I really started being able to enjoy it. Toward the beginning it was just jumping off the cliff. But toward the end I was finding my own Norma.''

Losing her partner of 16 years also forced Mason take full responsibility for choosing her cabaret material, a decision she'd previously left to Lasser, whose knowledge of song catalogs and arrangements was encyclopedic. In addition to several of Lasser's songs (which were posthumously released on Mason's second CD, ``Better Days''), a Mason cabaret program typically includes standards like Johnny Mercer's ``I Want to Be Around,'' playfully nimble ditties like Babbie Green's ``I Wish'' and fervid show-stoppers such as the plaintive ``As If We Never Said Goodbye.''

Performing without her musical soulmate remains emotionally difficult, and Mason has avoided attaching herself to any one, single collaborator. She now splits her workload among three different cabaret directors.

But she's also not about to slow down. When Mason named her own musical ``One Tough Cookie'' a few years ago, she obviously wasn't exaggerating.

``I miss that trust (with Lasser). I was so damn lucky to have that,'' she says.

``But you know, move on. We've all lost friends and people who we're close to. That's just part of life.''

THE FACTS

What: Karen Mason.

Where: Cinegrill at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 7000 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.

When: 8 tonight, Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Jan. 9 and 10.

Tickets: $15 plus a two-drink minimum. Call (213) 466-7000.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: Chicago cabaret performer Karen Mason, best known to Los Angeles audiences for her role in ``Sunset Boulevard,'' brings her act to Hollywood's Cinegrill for seven performances.
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 2, 1998
Words:898
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