The last time I wrote about Karen Mason–before a show at Lake Point Tower’s penthouse supper club, Cite, in 1997–I said that this Chicago-bred Broadway chanteuse was well on her way to a spot alongside the likes of Barbara Cook in the modern cabaret pantheon. Now, in time for her return to the Wicker Park nightspot Davenport’s (whose grand opening she headlined this fall), Mason seems to have reached that artistic pinnacle. Her dramatic gifts have always been extraordinary: the way she raises a fourth wall to turn a song into a fully lived encounter with an invisible scene partner, then lowers it to warmly connect with her audience; the convincing ease with which she segues between torchy tenderness and clownish comedy; the conversational intimacy she imparts even to the bravura climaxes that punctuate her show. But over the last couple years her intense but never strident alto has gained an impressive resonance and fullness that allows her to manipulate dynamics with true virtuosity; she can switch in an instant from a brassy belt to a breathy whisper or a steely pianissimo. Now what she needs to do is deepen her repertoire. The set I saw earlier this week was dominated by lovely but similar-sounding pop-Broadway ballads by Mason’s husband, Paul Rolnick, and her longtime musical director, the late Brian Lasser, complemented by perky lightweight selections including a Petula Clark medley, a Lasser novelty number about binge eating, and “Mr. Monotony,” a playful foray into cool jazz by Irving Berlin that Mason first sang a decade ago in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. It made for a slick, satisfying show, but Mason will need to spend more time exploring the classic canon–Gershwin, Porter, Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart–to claim the professional stature she deserves. Friday through Sunday and Wednesday through next Sunday, April 11, 8 PM, with extra shows Saturdays at 10:30 PM, Davenport’s Piano Bar & Cabaret, 1383 N. Milwaukee; 773-278-1830. Albert WilliaMS

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.