Karen Mason at NextStop Theatre Company

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They say a truly great performer has the power to transform a song that you might have heard a million times before into a new experience—to take a classic and make it his or her own while still doing justice to the original artist. Karen Moss did just that at the series premiere of NextStop Theatre Company’s Summer Cabaret Series, a two-month long engagement of intimate concerts at the cozy Industrial Strength Theatre in Northern Virginia.

Karen Mason.
Karen Mason.

Entitled “Secrets of the Ancient Divas,” this hour-long “archeological dig” began with Mason’s inspiration for this cabaret performance: the “Ancient Divas” and their material that has inspired her and so many before her. In a comical, personable, and interactive storytelling fashion that only a seasoned cabaret performer could pull off, Mason interwove brief stories about her performances with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor about her “archeological diva dig” that brought a sense of lightheartedness to the entire affair.

A diva knows to start off strong, and Mason did just that by opening with “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” from the legendary Judy Garland. It’s immediately clear from the onset that Mason isn’t just a singer or an actress or a performer, but she is a true entertainer—a triple threat that is not only phenomenal to hear, but also fun to watch and engage with. Tapping her toes on the wooden platform stage elevated about one foot from the ground in an intimate black box theatre, Mason interacts so naturally and calmly with those at the scattered cocktail tables surrounding her.

Occasionally, she turns out around to interact with pianist Christopher Denny, who himself has served as musical director, arranger and pianist for such theater, cabaret and opera luminaries as Julie Wilson, Brent Barrett, Gregg Edelman, Rodney Gilfry, David Campbell, David Burnham, Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Loudon, Tammy Grimes, Judy Kaye, Teri Ralston, Ron Raines, Jeff Harnar, Steven Brinberg and Tommy Femia, earning, in the process, two Back Stage Bistro Awards and four Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC) Awards for Outstanding Musical Direction.  The two performers share a calm, comfortable rapport with one another.

By the time the final notes come around, the music has slowed to half-time, and she ferociously and powerfully belts the last few bars in a few powerhouse vocal punches. The audience roars.

It’s immediately clear that the audience is in for a treat, and, surely, a dozen or so audience members flip over their programs to read more about this musical diva. It’s no surprise that Mason has quite the performance repertoire of her own. Having starred on Broadway in such hits as Mamma Mia, Sunset Boulevard, Wonderland, and Hairspray, she has also appeared all over the country, including headline performances at Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center. It’s no surprise that The New York Times calls out her “Fierce emotion! Intense and Intimate!  She creates a mood of wild expectation.”

She continues with a beautiful, carefree rendition of Judy Garland’s “Smile,” before tackling the classic number “He Touched Me,” showcasing her softer, more vulnerable side. Through her music, Mason has the rare capacity to emote and to evoke a wide array of feelings without ever having the emotion overwhelm the musical integrity of the piece. She might have a timed sob or laugh here and there, but it’s always just enough to get the point across.

Mason would be foolish not to include a Barbra Streisand song in a cabaret about “Ancient Divas.” Her rendition of Streisand’s “When In Rome (I Do As The Romans Do)” did just the trick. Powerful and bold, Mason spoke more meaning and interest into every bar than I’ve seen some performers put into an entire song. ­­Her next song similarly demonstrated how she can take a classic song and make it entirely her own—“Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” has been done a million times over, but Mason approaches the piece with her own style and sass that makes it all the more entertaining to watch.

Mason next tackled my personal favorite Kander and Ebb song “Colored Lights” from the musical revue The World Goes Round. She delivers a sentimental and powerful performance until the very last note, building to a commanding full belt. Mason has an incredible ability to make every song feel as though it’s an 11 o’clock number and gives it such force and power that you leave the theatre a bit confused about which song you should be humming on the way home, so you hum them all.

I could recount every song that Mason did the entire evening, and tell you amazing things about each one, but nothing will replace going to check out her performance live or downloading her album, or seeing another performance from the NextStop Theatre Company’s Summer Cabaret Series over the next couple of months.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and fifteen minutes, with no intermission.

Karen Mason performed for two nights only on Friday, July 11 and Saturday July 12, 2014 at the NextStop Theatre Company’s Summer Cabaret Series at the Industrial Strength Theatre – 269 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon, Virginia 20170. For tickets to the remaining performances of the Summer Cabaret Series, purchase them online. The Summer Cabaret Series plays until Sunday, August 17, 2014.

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Derek Mong
Derek is a DC-native and a graduate of Duke University (B.A Political Science). During his junior/senior year at Duke, Derek served as a Marketing and Public Relations intern at the Nederlander-operated Durham Performing Arts Center. At his internship, Derek developed marketing campaigns and assisted press in coverage of the four major Broadway engagements that season: Memphis, The Addams Family, Bring It On, and Wicked. Upon graduating from Duke in 2012, Derek joined a tech and management consulting firm in Arlington, VA, where he currently works. Derek enjoys frequenting the DC-NYC theatre scene; when not in the theatre, Derek can probably be found running outdoors, blogging, playing the piano, traveling the country, and, of course, tweeting (@derekmong). Derek is currently obsessed with Disney's 'Newsies' on Broadway.