Mary Wilson reigns Supreme

With the future of the Empire Plush Room, the Bay Area’s most distinctive cabaret, in some doubt – Will it shut down? Will it relocate to another hotel? – there’s a certain pleasure in sitting under the gorgeous, intimate room’s stained-glass ceiling and enjoying some good music.

The “good music” part was a little difficult during my last Plush Room experience (with Miss Tammy Grimes), but it was much easier Tuesday night with the return of Mary Wilson and her Up Close show.

Wilson, one of the original Supremes, debuted the show two years ago at the Plush Room, and it has improved significantly since then. The set list remains largely the same, and the high points two years ago remain high points today.

The 63-year-old Wilson is gorgeous, and with her regal bearing and status as pop-rock royalty (she is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you know), she set sets her audience all a-twitter.

Vocally, Wilson sounds great. Her voice is husky and warm, with enticing glints of humor and emotion. She doesn’t, however, always pick songs that mesh well with her voice, and some of her choices — “Smile,’’ “Spring Is Here,’’ Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why’’ — come across as pleasant but disconnected.

She says this show is all about ballads, and it is ballad heavy, but she really comes to life during a three-song samba set (“I Remember You,’’ “The Girl from Ipanema’’ and “Mas Que Nada’’). Wilson, the grandmother of eight, can still turn on the sexual heat.

Her take on Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me’’ started out well but turned into a train wreck by the end. Credit that to lack of rehearsal time with her five-piece band led by pianist/musical director Tammy Hall.

Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,’’ another of the pleasant but forgettable tune, was interrupted by an unfortunate monologue in which Wilson talked about going back to college at NYU and about her fabulous view apartment in Manhattan and about how she could see the smoke on 9/11 and how she had to give up the apartment because it got too expensive. From personal information to tragedy to real estate – not a good mix in the middle of a song.

Wilson makes it abundantly clear in concert that she would love to not sing any Supremes songs, but in the current incarnation of the show, she sings “My World Is Empty Without You.’’ (Last time around she sang three Supremes songs). The irony is that as much as she doesn’t want to sing the same songs she’s been doing for 40-plus years, she sings the hell out of this material. It would be great is she included more Motown material – she does include the Four Tops’ “I Believe in You and Me” – not necessarily Supremes songs, but great Motown songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s because she’s such an expert at performing them.

As she did last time around, Wilson includes “I Am Changing” from Dreamgirls, the musical/movie loosely based on the rise of the Supremes.

“I know it’s not about me because I didn’t get paid,” Wilson quipped. “Diana and I don’t talk, so I don’t know if she got paid. She probably got paid. But I sleep at night.”

Wilson’s emotionally charged “I Am Changing,” dedicated to original Supreme Florence Ballard, who died in 1976, was another highlight of the 85-minute show.

Mary Wilson’s Up Close continues at through Dec. 16 at the Empire Plush Room in the York Hotel, 940 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $52.50 or $57.50. Call or visit for information.

2 thoughts on “Mary Wilson reigns Supreme

  1. Chad,
    Too bad you have not returned to the subsequent performances. I wouldn’t call it a train wreck on I Can’t Make You Love Me, but I’m just a professional musician, not a ‘critic’. What shows have you written, by the way? I found your critique nothing short of outright cattiness. Be a brave boy and come back and enjoy this very well written, impassioned performance by Ms. Wilson and leave your ill/pre-conceived notions of her at home.

    Happy Holidays
    Tammy L. Hall

  2. I caught this show at The Blues Alley Cafe in Washington, D.C. and it was FABULOUS!!! Me and my girlfriends took the trip there just to see my favorite living Supreme. I’d just come off the heels of the death of my husband and needed a vacation bad. He and I had planned to see Wilson months before, but never got a chance to. When I went I enjoyed it so much I stayed for two sets! My favorite parts in the show was when she sang the Samba medley “I Remember You,” meshed with “The Girl from Impanema” and “Mas Que Nada,” I also enjoyed her reditions of “Both Sides Now” and “New York State of Mind,” but what brought me to the floor was her story about her son followed by Eric Claptons “Tears in Heaven.” If you get a chance go see this amazing show in whatever town it’s in!

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