Karen Mason Sings Better Days

November 11, 2010

Here’s that living ray-of-hope Karen Mason singing one of the great Brian Lasser songs at a recent Trevor Project benefit with the ever-amazing Christopher Denny at the piano.

Julie Wilson at the Metropolitan Room

March 15, 2009

Ron and I are doing a NY cabaret weekend (Megabus up and an $85/night hotel thanks to Priceline).

I am still soaring thanks to the cabaret gods who combined elements to provide us an amazingly sublime cabaret experience seeing Julie Wilson at the Metropolitan Room.

First of all, it was amazing to see Wilson.  Period.  But this show, a tribute to Billie Holliday, seems to be striking a particularly personal chord with her.  As anyone who has seen her in performance (or on a CD cover) knows, Wilson always wears a gardenia in her hair as a hommage to Holliday.  It turns out that Wilson actually knew Holliday personally and even described having a fried chicken dinner cooked by Holliday at ther home. 

Just think about that.  How many direct connections to Holliday are left in the entertainment world? 

During the evening, it seemed that Wilson was presenting the entirety of her lifetime of pain, joy, experience, and wisdom into each song she was singing.  And although she occasionally needed prompting and help, the sheer commitment and will we saw on stage was a testament to the human spirit.*

Christopher Denny not only provided sublime musical support, but I have never seen a musical director listen so completely to a singer and adjust so smoothly to their varied needs.  And also musically “disappear” so Wilson could have all the focus — an amazing example of low-key bravura!

And to top the evening off, not only did we go to see the show with our good friend Jim, but due to the vagaries of cabaret seating, Ron was on a banquette flanked by K.T. Sullivan on his right and Steve Ross on his left, with Gregory Moore of Cosmopolitan Orchestra fame on my right.

Here’s the song list (which will get a bit of research and updating):

  • Them There Eyes
  • Crazy He Calls Me / The Very Thought of You
  • You’ve Changed
  • You Turned the Tables on Me / You Took Advantage of Me / All of Me
  • What a Little Moonlight Can Do
  • I Must Have That Man /
  • Don’t Explain
  • I Call My Baby Sugar(?)
  • Travellin’ Light / Body and Soul / Good Morning, Heartache
  • That Old Feeling / My Old Flame
  • Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do
  • Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans
  • Billie’s Blues
  • (Encore) God Bless the Child


*Yes, this prose is getting a little purple, but it was that kind of night.

Favorite CDs of 2008 — Part I

January 3, 2009

I know, I know.  The point of the New Year is to look forward, not back.  However, here are what I would consider the top cabaret CDs of 2008.  In the next post, I’ll deal with some titles that are not quite so squarely in the genre.




As the always-insightful Emily Everson opines, there’s Barbara Cook, and then there’s everyone else.  Although this is far from being her best CD, she continues to be the towering presence in contemporary cabaret work.  And the good news is that Lee Musiker is getting some style and inventiveness back into her arrangements.  Who ever knew that “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” could be a portrait of a stalker?


Any available new Nancy LaMott tracks have to be a “must have.”  The material assembled here shows a wide range of LaMott performances.  Time to feel thrilled all over again.


This CD reconstructed LuPone’s Les Mouches act from the late 70’s from a box of cassettes of various performances.  The CD has an amazingly “live” feel and shows an exciting personality at a critical point in her career.


Probably the CD I’ve listened to the most this year, this recording is what every cabaret artist should aspire to.  It has amazing vocals ranging from warm, to sassy, to embracing, to heartbreaking.  The arrangements show Chris Denny’s combination of flawless taste and understanding of Mason’s gifts.  The material includes fresh takes on familiar material as well as a new Paul Rolnick number.

Haunted Heart

I really agonized over including this, because I don’t want it to seem too much like “one for the home team.”  But I have to add it because I think  it’s a terrific CD.  The song selection has variety and the CD contains songs people really love!  I especially think the medley of Blackberry Winter and Autumn is inspired.  Rick Jensen contributed stunning arrangements and beautiful piano work.  And, of course, Ron’s vocals are great!

So did I miss your favorite cabaret CD of the year????

A New Karen Mason Video

September 17, 2008

The amazing Karen Mason performs the song We Never Ran Out of Love, written for her by her husband Paul Rolnick.  The performance is a master-class on everything that we should be doing as cabaret singers.  As Lina Koutrakos would say, she combines her smarts, her chops and her heart (and it doesn’t hurt to have the wonderful Christopher Denny playin’ for ya!)

And by the way, another “must have” cabaret CD is Mason’s Right Here, Right Now.

Brent Barrett at the Kennedy Center

June 30, 2008
The sensational Mary Sugar attended Brent Barrett’s show, Bernstein on Broadway, at the Kennedy Center.  This was the last show in this year’s Barbara Cook Spotlight Series. (The series was sold out this year, next year’s series – Rebecca Luker, Betty Buckley, Liz Callaway, Victoria ClarkJason Danieley & Marin Mazzie —  looks great.) 
Mary was kind enough to send this report:

          The show was absolutely fantastic!  Brent Barrett has a fantastic baritone ranging from tender moments to soaring high notes that seem to sail.  He also has a comfortable stage presence and was terrific at engaging the audience throughout the evening.  He didn’t hold back at all!
          The show was a tribute to the work of Leonard Bernstein and was a well-crafted mix of well-known and lesser-known songs.  There was a chunk from Mass,  appropriate since it was written for the opening of the Kennedy Center.  Barrett said that Bernstein had given him his first big break in New York, originally casting him as Diesel and then promoting him to Tony during the run of the 70’s revival of West Side Story.  Chris Denny, his music director (who also was influenced by Bernstein early in his career), told a great story – he was on the phone with Bernstein and mentioned that he had just been playing a particular Bernstein song.  Bernstein’s response was “Yeah, it’s pretty isn’t it?”
          When he started into the song I Am Easily Assimilated from Candide, I thought it was an odd choice, but it turned into a great comic number.  The highlight of the show was Make Our Garden Grow.  Everything came out of his guts and erupted little by little into the crescendo — who needs a chorus?

          Bernie Blanks joined Barrett for the On The Town medley, and Chris Denny (whose work on Barret’s Alan Jay Lerner CD I’ve always admired) provided inventive arrangements.

Set list —
  • Tonight
  • Something’s Coming
  •  Lucky to be Me,New York, New York, Gabey’s Coming to Town, Lonely Town
  • I Am Easily Assimilated
  • Return to Westphalia
  • Ballad of el dorado
  • A Little Bit in Love / It’s Love
  • I Love My Wife
  • Dream with Me (Accomp himself)
  • Simple Song
  • Gloria Tibi
  • I Go On
  • Take Care of this House / Somewhere
  • Wrong Note Rag
  • There is a Garden / Make Our Garden Grow
  • Some Other Time








The AMAZING Karen Mason

April 24, 2008

Right Here / Right NowKaren Mason’s new CD, Right Here, Right Now is easily the best cabaret CD I’ve heard in 2008, if not farther back.*  Mason is an incredibly talented performer with an amazing instrument and a large “toolbox” of technique that support her artistic endeavors. 

The CD is a mixture of songs she has been performing for a while and never recorded as well as new material.  It features two terrific songs written by her very talented husband Paul Rolnick, Like the Heavens Hold the Stars and the title song.  Rolnick is also one of the top recording engineers in New York, and the sound quality on the CD, especially given Mason’s rangy voice and tendency toward extreme dynamic effects, shows another side of his talents.

Highlights of this CD include a passionate medley of Help and Being Alive; a reading of Hurry! It’s Lovely Here totally infused with joy; and a rousing Get Happy, including the rarely-heard intro. When reading the track list, I was frankly puzzled by the selection of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, but this trip veering into “lounge” is utterly charming and committed.

One rarely hears a CD with this consistent level of quality; there are no weak links in the song selections.  And much of this is due to the high level of talent in “team Mason” — amazing concepts by Barry Kleinbort supported by arrangements and piano work by the extraordinary Christopher Denny.  His solo piano on “As If We Never Said Goodby” makes one wonder why Lord Lloyd Webber felt the need for a whole orchestra for his show.

And speaking of Sunset Blvd, that track is a somewhat interesting historic document. Mason was the principal standby for Norma Desmond for most of the Broadway run of Sunset Blvd.  And she has been the only major Broadway, London, tour, German, or Australian Norma not to record some portion of the role.  (Danielle Ziegler, Helen Schneider’s replacement in Frankfurt has her own CD of Sunset highlights for heaven’s sake!) So this is a must-have recording for Andrew Lloyd Webber completists.  By the way, (my partner) Ron got choked up when he first heard this version. 

One of the things I like most most about Team Mason’s work is the thought they put in her arrangements.  Of course, they totally fit Mason and balance her artistic goals with her specific talents.  However while nothing is totally outrageous, they are distinct and often take an original approach to the material.  It would be very clear if another performer was trying to sing the Mason version of a song, the way it is very obvious when an accompanist became Wally Harper-esque for any singer but Barbara Cook.  And even Cook’s arrangements, while lovely, have certainly been amazingly bland post-Harper — if you disagree, just compare their versions of Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here!**

Here’s the track list:

1. All That Jazz
2. Secret Love
3. Like The Heavens Hold The Stars
4. Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend
5. Help/Being Alive
6. Hurry! It’s Lovely Here
7. Make Someone Happy
8. Right Here, Right Now
9. Get Happy
10. As If We Never Said Goodbye
11. Everything Old Is New Again
12. Look For The Silver Lining

* Ron’s amazing CD, Haunted Heart doesn’t count.

**  OK, one criticism of the CD — the case lists Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here! as “Hurry! It’s Lovely Here”

Stephen Holden on Julie Wilson

April 21, 2008

The NYTimes on the legend: “Ms. Wilson is a great, sad clown who asks us to laugh at the absurdity of it all. What other choice is there?”