It's a long way from Orphans--the funky, now-defunct Lincoln Avenue tavern where I first saw Karen Mason 20 years ago, singing for whatever cash listeners dropped into a hat--to Le Cabaret at Cite, the scenic and pricey penthouse supper club at Lake Point Tower where she's performing through this weekend. The distance--aesthetically as well as vertically--is an apt measure of how far Mason herself has come: the eager, anxious kid with the Minnelli-size voice and a tendency toward all-stops-out bathos has grown into an elegant singing actress of real power and often exquisite subtlety. The influences of her youth--including early-60s Streisand and early-70s Carly Simon--are still evident, but so is a mature expressiveness nurtured by the setbacks (including the loss of her longtime musical partner, songwriter and pianist Brian Lasser) as well as the successes she's experienced since moving to New York. Whether inventively reinterpreting vintage pop standards or thoughtfully crooning one of Lasser's plaintive and piquant originals, Mason balances her big, warm belt with conversational intimacy, using unpredictable, dramatically impeccable dynamic shifts and off-the-beat phrasing to convey the sense that she is simultaneously living and reflecting on whatever she's singing about. Her personal connection to a song can redeem schlock like "As If We Never Said Goodbye" (from Sunset Boulevard, in which she played Norma Desmond on Broadway as Glenn Close's standby) and turn a good number like Johnny Mercer's sassy "I Wanna Be Around" into a scalpel-sharp dissection of a rejected lover's bitterness. She has a knack for wacky comedy too, as she shows in a spoof of The King and I that turns Rodgers and Hammerstein's delicate soprano heroine into a Merman-esque "belting Anna." Aided by theatrical lighting and the superb accompaniment of pianist Christopher Denny, Mason in this homecoming engagement seems well on her way to a place alongside masters like Barbara Cook and Julie Wilson. Friday and Saturday, 9 and 11 PM, and Sunday, 9 PM, Le Cabaret at Cite, Lake Point Tower, 505 N. Lake Shore Dr.; 312-644-4050. ALBERT WILLIAMS
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo of Karen Mason.