With the new year come changes. On New Year’s Eve, Bay Area cabaret veteran Wesla Whitfield wil ring in 2008 with fans and revelers at San Francisco’s Empire Plush Room.
She’s in the midst of her record-breaking 27th gig at the venerable cabaret — a wonderfully intimate boite with a gorgeous mariner’s compass stained-glass ceiling — and it will also be her last.
The Empire Plush Room in the York Hotel, which began life as an honest-to-goodness speakeasy, will close Feb. 2. The folks at Rrazz Productions, who book the room, are opening a new space, the Rrazz Room, in San Francisco’s Hotel Nikko. That space opens later in February with another Bay Area cabaret stalwart, Paula West.
Whitfield’s farewell to the Plush actually has two titles — the result of an administrative mix-up. One is poignant: “The Last Dance.” The other is more hopeful: “The Best Is Yet to Come.”
Either way, the good news is that Whitfield, accompanied as ever by her husband/pianist/arranger Mike Greensill, bassist John Wiitala and drummer Vince Lateano, sings both of the songs that inspired the show’s titles.
It’s always good news when Whitfield sings. That’s just the simple truth. Her voice is supple and sweet, sharp and expressive, crystalline and glorious.
In fact, the supply of superlatives sputters when it comes to Whitfield, whose collaboration with Greensill has to be one of the music world’s greatest pairings.
He gives her flawless musical support and the kind of arrangements that allow her to be the absolute best interpreter of melody and lyric she can be.
The new show, which opened last week and feels painfully short at only 70 minutes, finds the 60-year-old Whitfield in a playful mood.
Those rip-your-heart-out ballads she’s so fond of are banished in favor of songs like the show opener, “Look for the Silver Lining” (slowed down to a ballad tempo, which somehow makes it even more hopeful), and chipper love songs like “Thou Swell,” “It’s Fate, Baby” and “Nobody Else But Me.”
She’s also spending time singing about the moon — probably because her new CD (her 18th with Greensill) is just out, and it contains three songs involving the Earth’s most romantic satellite.
“Message from the Man in the Moon,” the new CD’s title track, is a background number from the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races, and it’s charming, as is “Moonlight Saving Time.”
Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” one of the show’s few contemporary tunes, turns out to be the darkest song of the evening. It’s about reaching a moment of maturity when certain hopes and dreams, never realized, are relinquished. Whitfield’s full-bodied vocals, and Greensill’s delicate arrangement, make the song shimmer.
Also on the darker side, but imbued with hope, is “You Must Believe in Spring” by Michel Legrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman, a song about life’s cycle of renewal.
Rounding out the set are lovestruck gems such as “The Way You Look Tonight,” “My Ideal” and “Photographs.” Whitfield also throws the spotlight to Greensill mid-show for one of his own compositions: “Waltz for Wesla,” a beautiful tribute to his wife.
Whitfield and her musicians bring a glorious sense of play to their work, and it matches their impeccable artistry. They actually seem to be listening to and enjoying one another, and their affection for the music and each other is infectious.
The Empire Plush Room may be ending its reign as the Bay Area’s premiere cabaret, but as long as there are performers of Whitfield’s caliber — and they’re out there — the local scene will survive, and with any luck, thrive in years to come.
Wesla Whitfield’s “The Last Dance” continues through Jan. 20 at The Empire Plush Room in the York Hotel, 940 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$42.50, plus two-drink minimum
Call 866-468-3369 or visit www.theempireplushroom.com.