Christmas! Christmas! Christmas!
The West Bank Café, Laurie Beechman Theatre
Dec 17-19 2021
By Aron Bederson
Photos: Conor Weiss
Karen Mason brought the latest incarnation of her show Christmas! Christmas! Christmas! which she has been doing since the 90’s to the West Bank Café last week. The evening was a collection of Christmas standards and songs from the theatre/pop-rock and folk worlds. Mason was accompanied by her longtime musical director and friend on the piano, Christopher Denny, Tom Hubbard on the bass and was directed by Barry Kleinbort who also wrote material for the show, newly updated for the pandemic.
Mason entered in a red sequined gown and launched into a very “jazzy” version of Santa Claus is Coming To Town (F. Coots/H. Gillespie). She masterfully teased the audience with restraint as she held back from fully releasing her voice. A great deal of the lyrics had been cleverly rewritten: “that big red suit is comin!”-“better not frown-nice gown!” and for the button at the end of the song “No Claus for alarm!”
This fun opening number was followed by a medley: Seasons of Love/What The World Needs Now and We Need a Little Christmas (Larson/Bacharach-David/Herman, which poignantly pointed to the time we have spent in quarantine. What the World Needs Now and We need A Little Christmas brought out the many colors in Mason’s facile voice. Once again, controlling the excitement and energy, she pulled her audience in to the story.
Throughout the evening, Mason’s “less is more” approach to singing brought out her beautiful quality of tone, proving that the fact that she can let loose a big, brassy or bluesy sound when needed is mere icing on the cake.
In a charming bit of patter, Mason spoke of Christmas traditions, both growing up and ones she developed later as an adult in NY. She told of being home in St. Louis and her father stringing Christmas lights that read “Joyeux Noelle!” Not speaking French, the neighbors didn’t know what to make of it, but over time it became a Mason family (and neighborhood) tradition. Through this anecdote, Mason encouraged her audience to develop their own traditions whatever they may be.
In a wonderful arrangement of Christmas Waltz/Christmas Song (Styne/Cahn-Torme/Wells) we heard Mason’s gorgeous and rich soprano sound, and for It’ll Be Christmas Before You Know It- written by her husband, composer Paul Rolnick and Henry Cory, Mason crossed to the edge of the stage where her warm presence came front and center.
She started with a light quality in Winter Wonderland/Let it Snow (Bernard/Smith-Styne/Cahn) and grew to a big finish singing the final “walking in a winter wonderland,” giving the audience a taste of that “icing” mentioned earlier. A jazz inflected Takin’ a Chance on Love, featured Hubbard on the bass, was a nice shift of gears. Another non-holiday song followed with Billy Joel’s (He’s) Got A Way. Standing in the crook of the piano Mason played with the songs tempos effectively and drew the audience into her story.
The hilarious Not This Christmas, with music by Brian Lasser and lyrics by Mason’s director Barry Kleinbort listed all the gifts she doesn’t want this Christmas, Followed by a hopeful If I Ruled The World (Bricusse/Ornadel) with a loving mention of composer Leslie Bricusse, who left us earlier this year.
A highlight of the evening was Joy To The World/River (Watts/Mitchell). Music director/pianist Christopher Denny opened the piece singing “Joy to the world,” followed by Mason singing Joni Mitchell’s iconic opening line to her song River “Its coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees.” Throughout the number Denny and Mason supported each other beautifully as the musical lines intersected and joined together in stunning harmonies.
The Christmas songs continued with Mason standing front and center for I’ll Be Home For Christmas/Silent Night (Kent/Gannon/Gruber/Mohr) and the beautifully arranged We Three Kings (Hopkins). Mason found all of the nuance in the melody and lyrics of these songs. With the eye of director Barry Kleinbort, Mason made full use of the stage at The Westbank, stood back when it was her musician’s moments and always found her light and audience whether sitting off to the side, standing front and center or nestled in the crook of the piano.
In the exquisitely sung Sweetest of Nights and Finest of Days (Markham/Viorst), Mason’s focused tone beautifully expressed the sentiments of the song: “I hope you have people to nourish and cherish and love you.”
After thanking her brave Omicron fighting audience for their presence as well her musicians and director, Mason told a story about another tradition- watching Meet Me in St. Louis with her sister and sobbing through Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Martin/Blaine). The song seemed a perfect end to the evening. Mason and her team certainly did their part spreading Christmas cheer, good will to all, and beautiful music.