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Karen Mason's wickedly wise 'Christmas, Christmas, Christmas!'

Howard Reich

10:13 AM CST, December 13, 2012

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Christmas never sounded smarter.

Or wittier. Or more whimsical.

You'd expect as much from Karen Mason, a savvy cabaret artist who brings more brainy introspection and worldly wise perspectives to American song than many of her peers.

But any show titled "Christmas, Christmas, Christmas!" evokes images of picture-perfect postcard sentiments timed to coincide with the holiday season, a sugary world-view that wouldn't seem to mesh with Mason's. And, for the most part, it doesn't.

Mason's Christmas is sassy, brassy and tinged with confessional monologues about a recent trip to the emergency room and cunning references (well, at least one) to the Broadway musical "Rebecca" in which she held a leading role – until the show self-destructed before it opened, amid widely reported financial misdeeds.

Anyone who has endured such recent terrors, as well as life in modern-day show business, isn't going to be offering an Andy Williams-like, "Joy to the World" approach to Christmas, even though Mason eventually gets to that tune, and several other classics, at Davenport's, where she opened Wednesday night.

But it's the way Mason and her ingenious piano accompanist and occasional vocal back-up, Beckie Menzie, transform conventional holiday fare that makes this show stand out. No song sounds the way listeners might expect it to; virtually every piece carries a sly spin or a brooding subtext that adds dramatic layers to what otherwise might have emerged as treacle.

From the opening notes of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," in fact, it's clear that Mason and Menzie are up to no good (which, of course, is very good indeed). The slinky, insinuating, walking bass lines with which Menzie launches the tune sets the stage for Mason's sly, wickedly funny misinterpretation. Here was Santa tip-toeing into view, as if planning a heist, Mason's snarling consonants and squinting facial expressions predicting doom ahead.

When she allowed her sound to bloom fully in the bridge of the song, a ditty became an aria, Mason building inexorably to a gutsy, tear-it-up finale that let you know a major diva was in the house.

And that was just the first tune of the night.

Before long, Mason was whispering long lines in three-quarter time in "The Christmas Waltz," hissing gifts she hopes to avoid in "Not This Christmas" (including anything to do with "Rebecca") and ripping into "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" as if she were playing a Broadway mega-theater rather than a tiny Milwaukee Avenue cabaret.

The revelation of the show came toward the end, when she unveiled a song by Paul Rolnick (her husband) and Shelly Markham penned for the recent marriage of a gay couple. If you didn't know the background, "It's About Time" would unfold as a lovely wedding piece for any twosome. Considering the socio-political context, however, the piece stood virtually as an anthem for marriage equality, and a deeply moving one at that. It's not hard to imagine "It's About Time" being embraced widely as this issue heads to the United States Supreme Court.

When was the last time the august judges came to mind during a Christmas cabaret show?

Only Karen Mason could have pulled it off.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Karen Mason's 'Christmas, Christmas, Christmas!'
When
: 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Wednesday and Dec. 22; 7 p.m. Dec. 23
Where: Davenport's, 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Admission: $30-$35 plus two-drink minimum; 773-278-1830 or davenportspianobar.com