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Cabaret Scenes

Karen Mason & Louis Rosen

Two Friends/Love of Song
The Duplex, NYC, December 28, 2016
Reviewed by Alix Cohen


“I sing for you/I sing for me/I sing for love/Love of song….” Luxuriating in the vocal expression of warm, elongated notes, actress/vocalist Karen Mason and musician/songwriter Louis Rosen open by palpably sharing delight in their craft. (Louis Rosen’s “Love of Song”)

Forty years ago friend/fellow writer Brian Lasser encouraged Rosen to come hear a singer for whom Lasser was musical director. That singer was Karen Mason. Though Mason and Rosen have kept warm relations (Lasser passed in 1992), they’ve never before done an entire show together. This outing offers original material by Rosen and Lasser. While the former’s muse rests in a soft rock/folk tradition of very personal lyrics, songs by the latter seem geared toward revue and musical theater performance.

Accompanying tonight’s show on piano and guitar, Rosen would be the first to admit he’s
not a singer. He is, however, intimate with the work’s inception and, like many songwriters,
conveys elements others might find elusive. Mason furnishes both polished sound and the
interpretation of a veteran theater professional. Signature belting and high dudgeon are
almost completely absent during an evening when the artist draws from a deep emotional
well with apt reserve.

Some of Rosen’s best are: “The South Side,” a Randy Newman‐ish tale about the South Side of Chicago (his childhood home): “…It was bungalows all in a row/Where a family dream
could grow/And only Democrats knew where the bodies were buried…”; the wry and
eloquent “I Need You” (rendered as a duet): “…like a seed needs the rain/like pleasure needs pain…like yang needs some yin/like confession needs sin…” during which the performers affectionately “tickle” one another with examples; and “Half the Bed,” sung by an abandoned woman to a melody that circles back on itself like a helix—or perhaps unrelenting memories. (Mason enables us to see the empty sheets.)

A tandem “Chicago” and Rosen’s “Dust to Dust Blues” work wonderfully together, not the
least because of Rosen’s truly original arrangement of the iconic Fred Fisher song. Mason
paints the city sound shadowed, but homey. (This should be turned into a full length number, perhaps for one of her own shows.) Rosen soulfully mines his past. “… I seek out the holiness here in the wilderness…” which echoes like a classic, hop‐a‐freight folk refrain.

Lasser’s songs include such as “How Long Has It Been?”—”Look, we’re all grown up…Not
what we had planned…”—a convincing conversation as presented by Mason, simple, halting, true; “Tear Up the Town,” a tap tempo production‐number‐in‐waiting with the vocalist in Broadway mode; and “Becoming My Mother,” sweet sentiment performed reflectively, inspired by Mason’s turning 30.

The evening concludes with Rosen’s “Lullaby for Teddy” (his now college‐aged son): “…sleep won’t harm or scare or charm….” While it might have arrived more dulcet in Mason’s capable hands, feeling weighs equally here. The author’s last whispered, slightly choked “Goodnight, Teddy” lands like a well‐watched feather.

 

Karen Mason and Louis Rosen reunite, back home in Chicago

by Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune, October 21, 2015

 

It's not billed as such, but the performances taking place this week at Davenport's amount to a poignant reunion.

For back in the 1970s, a young singer from Arlington Heights named Karen Mason was launching what would become a distinguished national career, accompanied by a comparably gifted Chicago pianist-songwriter named Brian Lasser. He was close friends with another fledgling Chicago tunesmith, Louis Rosen, the two having first gotten to know each other — and share their show-business dreams — as kids on the South Side of Chicago.

Mason and Lasser moved to New York in 1979, and Rosen headed there in 1981, three Chicagoans intent on conquering Manhattan.

But Lasser died tragically in 1992 of AIDS, at age 40, and Mason has nurtured his memory ever since, featuring some of his music in virtually every solo show she has performed. Rosen, meanwhile, organized and hosted Lasser's memorial, the three musicians linked for all time by personal history and, of course, music.

Now, for the first time, Mason and Rosen have created a show of their own, and it features, naturally, music of Lasser and Rosen. It's as if three former Chicagoans were coming back home together, though only two will be here in the flesh for this week's world premiere engagement.

"I'm nervous," says Mason, whose mighty pipes and gutsy delivery on stage suggest nothing but supreme confidence.

"I'm nervous not because of being on stage with Louis — this whole year has been about doing things that I've been scared to do. … Without sounding too maudlin, it's like I see how many years I have left, and I just want to jump into the deep end of the pool and not say 'no' to things that scare me."

Surely the Mason-Rosen show is fraught with challenges, musically and emotionally. For starters, Mason will be performing alone with Rosen, who sings and plays guitar — and without any other instrumental accompaniment. There's a heightened degree of exposure and, therefore, vulnerability built into this kind of intimate duo format. Furthermore, Mason will be performing new material by Rosen, classics by Lasser and vintage songs of Rosen that Mason and Lasser performed here in the '70s. The latter are likely to rekindle very warm memories.

"Brian and I grew up together," recalls Rosen, the two attending Bowen High School. "We knew each other from the (Jewish Community Center). He was a few years older than me.

"The fact that we were both songwriters drew us together, and, really, for the rest of our lives we were not only dear friends but musical confidantes.

"He'd often be one of the first persons who would hear something I was doing, and I'd hear some of his songs early on. We told each other the truth."

So the connections among these three artists ran deep, Mason and Lasser at one point having incorporated five of Rosen's songs in a single show, says Rosen. What's surprising, then, is that it has taken so long for Mason and Rosen to create an evening that celebrates and explores these overlapping friendships and artistic partnerships.

The venture came about nearly by happenstance, with Rosen inviting Mason to participate in a retrospective of his songwriting career last June the 92nd Street Y, in New York, where Rosen has taught music for more than three decades. Both realized anew the depth of their friendship, they say, inspiring Mason to ask: "Would you come to Chicago and do a show?" remembers Rosen.

He immediately said yes and began searching for repertoire they might perform, together and solo. Among his archives he found a demo tape of a tune of his from the 1970s, "Ages Since the Last Time," and sent it to Mason.

She listened, called him up and said, "Who's singing?" remembers Mason.

"He said, 'It's you.' It was from 1976, 1977. I didn't even recognize my own voice."

Perhaps that's not so surprising, and not only because voices evolve through the decades, typically getting lower in pitch and, sometimes, richer in tone. But that's not the only reason Mason believes she didn't recognize the younger version of herself.

"To my ear it sounds more stylized," says Mason. "I think I was really trying to find out who I was. Now I've maybe found out who I am. And I'm a little bit more comfortable with myself vocally."

Indeed, Mason stands as a widely accomplished and dramatically fearless cabaret and theatrical singer, a rightful heir to such ferocious song interpreters as Julie Wilson and Elaine Stritch. Add to this a voice that works on all eight cylinders, and you have a performer of uncommon prowess.

But Mason sounds different in this show, she and Rosen believe, his songs bringing forth another side of her art.

"Sometimes we joke that she's singing quieter than she's ever sung before," says Rosen. "And I think for her it's been fun not having to deliver that big, Broadway, 11 o'clock (song) approach."

Or, as Mason puts it, "I'm having to listen — this sounds very actor-y — it's forcing me to listen to somebody else on stage, and share."

As for the Lasser material, Rosen sums up a sentiment that he and Mason probably share.

"I feel now it's a debt being repaid," says Rosen, "in that Brian was the first person — when he worked with Karen — to champion my songs."

Quite a reunion.

"Mason & Rosen: Two Friends — Love of Song" plays at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday at Davenport's, 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave.; $28 plus two-drink minimum; 773-278-1830 or www.davenportspianobar.com.

hreich@tribpub.com

Twitter @howardreich

Copyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune