Karen Mason: Just in Styne: Karen Sings Jule

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Karen Mason

Just in Styne: Karen Sings Jule

Birdland Jazz Club, NYC, March 25, 2024

Reviewed by Bart Greenberg

Karen Mason
Photo: Maryann Lopinto

With the force of a keg of dynamite, Karen Mason strode onto the stage of Birdland looking fabulous in a white pants suit and launched into a sexy and confident “Let Me Entertain You” (lyric by Stephen Sondheim) to begin her celebration of the composer Jule Styne and his various collaborators. This rendition, mixed with a part of “I’m the Greatest Star” (Bob Merrill), was the first of many combinations of related tunes performed throughout the evening. This creativity, wit, and theatrical flair was evident from the first moment to the last, making Just in Styne: Karen Sings Jule a total joy.

“I’ve Heard That Song Before” (Sammy Cahn) served as a great launchpad for both a collection of famous and lesser-known Styne songs, and the teasing arrangements that evoked other tunes as Mason was concentrating on one. These were created by her music director and pianist Christopher Denny, who has been collaborating with her for decades. Also part of her team was Tom Hubbard on bass and longtime director Barry Kleinbort, whose deft hand was apparent in the way Mason used the entire stage throughout this fast-moving show. She shifted from her bright belting style to become a subtle balladeer in a touching medley of “It’s Magic” (Cahn) and “Long Before I Knew You” (Betty Comden & Adolph Green). It was filled with passion, and which allowed Denny a lovely chance to show off his skill at the piano. The same style was evident in the lovely, but lesser-known “Ride On a Rainbow” (Leo Robin). The mood shifted again with the bouncy (and silly) “I’m in Love” (Cahn), which merged into “Nothin’ Like Love” (Robin).

The classic “Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend” (Robin) gave Mason a chance to show off her bling and to give the comedy of the song a fresh perspective—that of a smart mature woman—that made the song all her own. Following this was a terrifically structured World War II medley that was both moving and nostalgic. It combined “Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week” (Cahn); “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” (Frank Loesser); “I’ll Walk Alone” (Cahn); and “It’s Been a Long, Long Time (Cahn). A salute to the Big Apple came next with “Every Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York (Bob Hilliard) that included some extra patter written by Kleinbort and which allowed for a delightful duet for Mason and Denny. A second playful joint effort was a combination of “Together Wherever We Go” (Sondheim) and “I Want to Be Seen with You” (Merrill).

After the standard “People” (Merrill), to which Mason brought both passion and keen intelligence, came some rarities: Styne’s only collaboration with lyricist Carolyn Leigh, the devastating “Killing Time,” was presented achingly simply. Another smart medley of “The Party’s Over” (Comden & Green) and “The People in My Life” (Merrill) created a small play that Mason torched perfectly. That melted into “Rose’s Turn” (Sondheim). This singing actress has played that role in three full productions. She turned the number it into a celebration of individualism and survival, and the audience was carried away with her. The delicious evening was brought cleverly to a close with “I Have You to Thank” (Robin), in which she expressed her gratitude to those who helped her with the show. It was followed by her personal philosophy, a movingly offered “Make Someone Happy” (Comden and Green). Mason certainly made the audience happy.

Bart Greenberg

Bart Greenberg first discovered cabaret a few weeks after arriving in New York City by seeing Julie Wilson and William Roy performing Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter outdoors at Rockefeller Center. It was instant love for both Ms. Wilson and the art form. Some years later, he was given the opportunity to create his own series of cabaret shows while working at Tower Records. "Any Wednesday" was born, a weekly half-hour performance by a singer promoting a new CD release. Ann Hampton Callaway launched the series. When Tower shut down, Bart was lucky to move the program across the street to Barnes & Noble, where it thrived under the generous support of the company. The series received both The MAC Board of Directors Award and The Bistro Award. Some of the performers who took part in "Any Wednesday" include Barbara Fasano and Eric Comstock, Tony Desare, Andrea Marcovicci, Carole Bufford, the Karens, Akers, Mason and Oberlin, and Julie Wilson. Privately, Greenberg is happily married to writer/photographer Mark Wallis, who as a performance artist in his native England gathered a major following as "I Am Cereal Killer."