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Karen Mason: Mamma Mia! It's Momma Rose!

The great Irish actor Jim Norton once who told me that his character work always begins from the ground up, with the shoes his character wears. I've made a habit of noticing that when I go to the theater. If the shoes don't fit the character, I get nervous. Karen Mason and I spoke in 2007, in the late great Cafe Edison, home of the best matzo ball soup. It was pouring rain and she came in, as noted in the story, wearing lime green rain boots. I joked: "I've got the headline -- The Diva Wore Duck Boots!" What a warm, wonderful woman Karen Mason is.

The last time Broadway audiences saw Karen Mason, she was wearing a white spandex suit and platform moon boots, creating the role of Tanya in "Mamma Mia."

Starting tonight, audiences at Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford can see her wearing more sensible clothes - if not more comfortable shoes - as Mama Rose in "Gypsy."

Going from "Mamma Mia" to Mama Rose is quite a leap for Mason - and quite a coup for the dinner theater to land a star of her caliber. Westchester Broadway typically casts actors still looking for their big break, not one who's in the middle of a solid career.

Mason just wishes Rose's shoes were more comfortable.

"My feet at the end of the night - that's the hardest part - it's like 'Get 'em off!' They have a very high heel," she says with a laugh.

Still, Mason knows she has big shoes to fill.

After all, the role of the stage mother from hell has been played on Broadway by no less than Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and Bernadette Peters. And Patti LuPone put her own spin on the driven Depression-era stage mom at a Chicago festival last summer.

"It's a monster role," Mason says. "The only people who really understand it, I think, are other actors or other women who've done the role."

The Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical is based on the life story of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. It follows her from the vaudeville and burlesque circuit to stardom - and presents a warts-and-all look at her mother, who pushed her children into show business, and away from her.

Mason says the part - which she'll play through Aug. 4 - is deceptively simple on paper.

"It's just a couple of tunes," she says. "She really only participates in a certain number of songs, but they're killers."

The biggest killer is "Rose's Turn," the 11 o'clock number in which Rose, after a confrontation with Gypsy Rose Lee, has a breakdown for all to see.

"It's a great female singer's role," Mason says. "It's the best. It has everything in it that I could ever possibly do in my life. It's got comedy, it's got movement, it's got drama, over-the-top emotion and fantastic notes."

She pauses, then adds with a laugh, "and dogs and kids."

Yes on both counts. During a photo call last week at the dinner theater, Mason chatted with some real-life stage mothers, there to pick up their kids after the matinee. And she mugged with the tiny dog who has a part in the action.

A few days later - on a stormy morning that prompted her to don lime green rain boots - the singer is chatting over lunch at the Hotel Edison diner, a Theater District eatery in which Rose would feel completely at home. It's loud and buzzing, the waiters wear hats, the food is at your table in seconds and tables turn quickly.

("Spring Awakening" producer Tom Hulce - of "Amadeus" fame - was holding a pre-Tonys huddle with his team at a table up front.)

It's been a favorite spot for Mason since she appeared in "Jerome Robbins' Broadway" playing, among others, Miss Mazeppa, one of the strippers from "Gypsy." (She's the one who croons: "If you wanna stump it, bump it with a trumpet.")

In addition to "Mamma Mia" and "Jerome Robbins," Mason's other Broadway credits are "Play Me a Country Song," a 1982 show that closed after one official performance - though she still says it had some great songs - and "Sunset Boulevard."

In that Andrew Lloyd Webber show, she learned plenty about filling shoes, and about letting her own size 10's work for her.

Over the course of three years, in Los Angeles and New York, she covered for three stars - Glenn Close, Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige - an experience she likens to a master class, watching three women put their spin on the role of faded movie star Norma Desmond.

As a standby, Mason didn't get rehearsal time with director Trevor Nunn, so she hired her own director, Justin Ross, to help her find the Norma within her.

"I knew what the blocking was, but I knew I wasn't going to get rehearsal time," she says.

"I had to create for me a character that was who I am," she says. "And to their credit, they did not want me to mimic Glenn. That happens so much, where you're asked, basically, to just do the performance of that person.

"I'm not a film star in the way she is, so I had to create it differently in my head."

Since Norma was all about clinging to the career she'd lost, Mason plumbed moments of loss in her life to flesh her out.

She had just lost her longtime collaborator and mentor, composer Brian Lasser, to AIDS. Recalling that fresh loss - of someone she thought she'd never lose - gave Mason's Norma the depth the role demanded.

Years later, Mason recorded Lasser songs on her album "Better Days," on her own label, Zevely Records. Zevely was Mason's mother's maiden name.

To bring Rose to life in Elmsford, Mason says she'll be chaneling Auntie Mame: Not the one made famous by Rosalind Russell, then Lansbury, then Lucille Ball - but her actual Auntie Mame, Miriam Zevely, a hard-charging woman of business who took nothing from nobody.

"She was just sassy," she says.

Her winner-take-all attitude has served Mason well in previous incarnations of Rose. She first played Mama Rose at the Sundance Theater in Utah in 1998 and then at the St. Louis Muny.

Another key to Rose, Mason says, is her charm. "She could work a room," she says.

Mason has worked cabaret rooms for years and is a nine-time winner of the coveted MAC Award given by the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs. This year, she won the group's Board of Directors award.

She has five CDs - "Sweetest of Nights,""When the Sun Comes Out," "Better Days," "Christmas! Christmas! Christmas!" and "Not So Simply Broadway."

That last title is an apt description of the latest Mama Rose, the one local audiences can see without going to Manhattan.

No matter which shoes she's filling, there's more to Karen Mason than meets the eye.

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