Crooning Standard Tunes With A Twist

Firefighters train water on a burning home on Malibu Road in Malibu, Calif., Monday, Jan. 8, 2007.
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Karen Mason is as comfortable sharing a concert hall stage with Luciano Pavorotti as she is crooning old standards in a dimly lit cabaret.

"With the size of my voice, it's really fun to just let 'er rip on a big concert stage," says Mason, who is performing at the moment at Arci's Place, a New York club. "In a smaller cabaret space, I get to do the smaller, more personal songs and moments."

Mason, who has shared the stage with Pavorotti, Rosemary Clooney and Liza Minelli, is best known for her role of Norma Desmond in Broadway's Sunset Boulevard.

Mason began her career in Chicago where she joined up with Brian Lasser, who became her musical director and arranger.

They were a musical team for sixteen years before he died in 1992. Although he was homosexual, she says in many ways their relationship was like a marriage.

"He knew from how my shoulders went up how I was going to phrase something," she explains. It seems she sings We Never Ran Out Of Love (We Just Ran Out Of Time) to his memory. The song is also significant because her husband - songwriter Paul Rolnick - wrote it after he lost his father.

Mason rearranges modern standards so that they sound unfamiliar. For example, she blends The Beatles Help with Sondheim's Being Alive, but sings them both very slowly. They dissolve into each other. "They feed each other, especially coming out of Paul (McCartney's) song," she says. "Help is really a beautiful lyric and you don't really hear it. When I was growing up we'd sing along to it, and we'd have the windows rolled down in the car, and we'd be singing it really loudly, and we'd be driving along. To hear the lyric is really a different experience. It really does set up Being Alive."

Mason is equally at home in a cabaret, a concert hall or a Broadway theater.

"I really like seeing people when I perform - there is something comforting about that," she says, "about being able to relate to people in the audience." In a cabaret she says she can carry on a "conversation" and she engages the audience in this conversation through her music and charisma.

In theater, she enjoys playing very strong women.

She grew up in the Midwest, Catholic and female with Southern parents. "You just don't be aggressive," she says of her childhood. "You don't stand out, and that's taken me a long time to learn, that that's not a bad thing. So playing all these very strong, single-minded women probably has helped in a lot of ways to make me stronger, because I have to tap into that part of myself, and once you tap into it, you realize it's not such a bad thing. It's always been there, it's just now, you don't have to apologize for it."

She will be at Arci's Place through Oct. 15, but can be seen in both San Francisco and Chicago later in the year.