Karen Mason
Karen Mason
For the past 16 years in a row, singer-actress Karen Mason has traveled up to Stockbridge, Massachusetts to perform at the DeSisto School, a unique educational institution designed to help troubled teenagers. The DeSisto shows are open to the public but, more importantly, the kids who go to school there and are interested in show business have a chance to learn from visiting stars like Karen Akers, KT Sullivan, Jeff Harnar, etc. while working as members of the staff that cooks and serves the meals to the paying customers who attend these premiere cabaret acts.

In this case, the degree of interaction went far beyond food to include a touching encore that had 10 DeSisto kids up on stage to join Mason in singing "Over the Rainbow." You won't be seeing that when she brings this act to New York's King Kong Room on August 18 at 8:30pm, but it speaks volumes about the warmth and humanity that is very much a part of her appeal.

Karen Mason is one of cabaret's most accessible divas. More accurately, she isn't really a diva at all, at least insofar as her personality is concerned: The only thing that makes her a diva is her towering talent. That talent, she admitted, was greatly influenced by songs from movies that she saw while growing up -- some on the big screen, some on TV. These are the songs that make up her new show.

Now, if you're aware of Karen Mason's vocal prowess, we don't have to tell you that she can sing the roof off of St. Patrick's Cathedral. In this show, however, rather than trumpeting her way to a big finish at every opportunity, she shows considerable restraint, often choosing quiet and subtle ways to finesse lyrics. Fans may wish that she'd go for the vocal gusto more often -- how can she resist a big blowout finale for "I Will Wait For You?" -- but, most of the time, her choices make good sense. And when she does belt out a number, it has extra impact due to the contrast with her more introspective performances.

The centerpiece of the act comes when Mason notes that she was most influenced by three stars in particular: Doris Day, Barbra Streisand, and Judy Garland. She then takes on the almost impossible task of singing some of those ladies' signature songs. Mason offers a sweet, delicate rendition of the Doris Day classic "Secret Love" but it's tough to compete with Barbra's "People" and Judy's "Get Happy" unless you sing these songs in arrangements that are markedly different from the originals -- which she doesn't. On the other hand, Mason reinvents the Beatles' hit "Just to Dance With You." With her slow, passionate performance, Mason transforms this song from the movie A Hard Day's Night into a deeply romantic ballad. She does it again when she sings "Let's Face the Music and Dance" with real intensity.

While some of the most successful numbers in the show are not rock-em, sock-em power ballads, others most definitely are. Mason stops the show with her own powerhouse take on "The Winner Takes It All" (she co-starred in Mamma Mia! on Broadway). She also displays a penchant for comedy, a side of her that we don't often see, when she brasses and sasses her way through "Is That the Language of Love?"

Musical director Chris Denny's arrangements are as beautiful as they are intelligent. Although Denny and Mason are longtime colleagues, his work here brings out in her singing a wistfully romantic tone that we've never heard before. This highly entertaining show will appeal to a much broader audience than hard-core cabaretgoers.