Twenty years ago newcomer Karen Mason wowed Chicago cabaretgoers with her big, phenomenally rich voice, shown off in songs written and/or arranged for her by accompanist Brian Lasser. Now an established presence on Broadway, where she's standby for the lead in Sunset Boulevard, Mason is back home starring in the world premiere of this quasi-autobiographical musical, composed for her by Lasser before he died of AIDS. Mason has ripened into a performer of captivating warmth and honesty, and these qualities help her convey the poignant, amusing realities in this potentially mundane piece: a Manhattanite returns to suburban Chicago to help her widowed mother sort through a lifetime of mementos and memories. Lasser's pretty, well-crafted story-songs recall Marvin Hamlisch and John Kander (the title tune is a bitter response to Kander's "New York, New York"), but they fit Mason like a kid glove; Rita Nachtmann's script, Frank Ventura's shrewd direction, and the lyrics by Lasser, Gary Gardner, and Barry Kleinbort use telling details to convey universal experiences--remembering the joys and pains of adolescence, caring for an aging parent (well played by Diane Houghton). Though Mason's goofy humor, edgy sensitivity, and steely strength suggest the young Streisand, Minnelli, and Carol Burnett, she's very much her own artist, happily free of her famous predecessors' self-indulgent affectations. Her voice is more thrilling than ever--sharp and clear even in its most plaintive pianissimos, creamy and soothing in its brassiest fortes. Apple Tree Theatre, 595 Elm Place, Highland Park, 847-432-4335. Through April 21: Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 PM; Fridays, 8 PM; Saturdays, 5 and 9 PM; Sundays, 3 PM. $25-$28. --Albert Williams
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin.