Wesla Whitfield’s dazzling Street of Dreams

Wesla and Mike

Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill are better than ever, which is saying something as they’ve been better than most for quite some time. The singer and her husband, the arranger/pianist, haven’t been seen regularly here in San Francisco since they moved north a few years back, but anytime they return is cause for attention and celebration, especially when they’re part of the auspicious launch of a new cabaret room.

The lovely space is called Society Cabaret, and it’s tucked away in the Hotel Rex, right off Union Square. It’s not a room designed for performance, but it’s more than suitable, charming even with its comfy-but-elegant New York-style decor, including red tablecloths on little cocktail tables. There’s a small stage area big enough for piano, bass and drums (Whitfield’s set up). Lighting is rudimentary (the room itself never really gets dark), but the key thing is the sound, which is just fine – could be louder, could be warmer, but it’s nice and clear.

How wonderful to have a truly intimate, unfussy cabaret space where you feel comfortable, unpressured and free to just enjoy the music. (There’s no two-drink minimum, but food and drink are available, of course.)

And what music. Whitfield’s new show is Street of Dreams, another of her “I have to call it something, so why not this?” creations that’s simply a reason to sing more than a dozen great tunes and do a little bantering with the band and the audience.

Wesla and Mike

Backed by the inimitable Greensill, whose arrangements are pure gold, and basisst John Wiitala and drummer Vince Lateano on drums – a stellar trio by any standard – Whitfield spends 80 blissful minutes doing what she does best: bringing out the best of the Great American Songbook.

Highlights in this set include a heart-melting “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” a swingin’ “The Gypsy in My Soul” and a version of Sondheim’s “In Buddy’s Eyes” that is a master class in how underplaying the emotion of a song can maximize its impact.

Greensill does a little singing in this show as well, which is a wonderful addition to the act. He sings an old chestnut called “When the Morning Glories Wake Up in the Morning,” then he and Whitfield duet charmingly on “Little Tin Box” from Fiorello. Other show tunes include “On the Other Side of the Tracks” from Little Me and “Show Me” from My Fair Lady.

Whitfield unearths Cole Porter’s 1941 “Dream Dancing” as a romantic gem and gives the Street of Dreams concept a workout with a lustrous “When You Wish Upon a Star” and a show-ending medley of “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “When I Grow Too Old to Dream.” She also dusts off “Love Is a Necessary Evil,” a sly tune (by Marvin Fisher and Jack Segal) that features the lyric, “Who needs it? No one but the whole human race.”

There were a few bobbled lyrics on opening night (Porter’s “You’re the Top,” complete with reference to King Kong’s knob, was initially irksome but ultimately conquered), and Greensill joked, “We used to be nervous on opening nights…we used to be much better on opening nights.” But truth be told, these guys are pros. Opening night was delightful – a dream you might even say.

Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill’s Street of Dreams continues through Sept. 15 at Society Cabaret in the Hotel Rex, 562 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $35-$75 (no minimums). Call 800-982-2787 or visit www.societycabaret.com.

Theater Dogs Hot list: `War Music,’ Lamott, Wesla, `Coco’

Looking for quality entertainment this weekend? Never a difficult task in the Bay Area. In fact, there’s often too much from which to choose.

Here are some tips:

American Conservatory Theater’s First look Festival continues Friday and Saturday (April 25 and 26) with Lillian Groag’s War Music, a theatrical adaptation of poet Christopher Logue’s retelling of Homer’s Iliad. The play, revised since its Los Angeles run, will receive a full production during ACT’s 2008-09 season. Groag (right) directs. The script-in-hand workshop is at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $10.50 general, $7.50 for students, seniors and ACT subscribers. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

– For the very first time, the work of Marin writer Anne Lamott (left) is being adapted for the stage. San Rafael’s AlterTheater presents the world premiere of Lamott’s first novel, Hard Laughter adapted for the stage Anne Brebner, a longtime friend of Lamott’s, and Laurel Graver. The show opens Friday, April 25 at The Wooden Duck, a store specializing in furniture made from recycled wood (which, not coincidentally, will comprise much of the play’s set). Jayne Wenger directs Lamott’s tale of a free-thinking NorCal bohemian family as they struggle with issues of mortality, sexual freedom and addiction. The cast includes Lindsay Benner, Jeffrey Bihr, Rio Codda, Zac Jaffe, Hannah Rose Kornfeld, Laura Lowry and Frances Lee McCain. The show runs through May 18, and the Wooden Duck is at 1848 Fourth St (at H Street), San Rafael. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 415-454-2787 or visit www.althertheater.org.

– Only one of the greatest singers ever (in the Bay Area or anywhere), Wesla Whitfield (right) appears Saturday, April 26 with the Peninsula Symphony as well as with her husband/arranger Mike Greensill and his trio. Whitfield and Greensill will do what they do best: sing gorgeous tunes from the Great American Songbook, only this time, they’ll be accompanied by more than 20 members of the symphony. The evening will include songs by Gershwin, Ellington, Rodgers and Hammerstein with new arrangements by Greensill (something of a genius when it comes to arrangements). Maestro Mitchell Sardou Klein leads the string orchestra and the Peninsula Symphony French Horn Quartet led by William Klingelhoffer. The show is at 8 p.m. at the Fox Theater in downtown Redwood City. Tickets are $34 general, $29 for seniors and students. Call 650-941-5291 or visit www.peninsualsymphony.org.

42nd Street Moon, the San Francisco company that dusts off lost or forgotten musicals and gives them spiffy concert productions, performs that rarity of rarities: a Katharine Hepburn musical. The company is reviving Alan J. Lerner and Andre Previn’s 1970 Coco, which starred Hepburn as the croaking Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel. For the concert production, 42nd Street Moon has the gorgeous Andrea Marcovicci (left) to play the title role. The show previews Friday, April 25 and opens Saturday, April 26 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. The show continues through May 11. Tickets are $22-$38. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

Review: Wesla Whitfield

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.

Wesla Whitfield’s New Year’s gig

Ask most singers and they’ll tell you: New Year’s Eve is not their favorite night for a gig.

Audience members are overexcited, demanding and, most often, drunk off their gourds.

“If your goal is to try and re-create the New Year’s Eve scene from When Harry Met Sally, that’s not going to happen,” says jazz cabaret singer Wesla Whitfield, something of a Bay Area legend.

This New Year’s Eve, Whitfield, along with her husband/musical director Mike Greensill, will be performing, as she has many times, at the Empire Plush Room in San Francisco’s York Hotel. But this year’s gig, dubbed somewhat ironically The Best Is Yet to Come, is a little sentimental. Whitfield and Greensill are among the final acts in the Plush Room, whose future is unknown.

“I’m sorry to see it go,” says Whitfield, who, after decades in San Francisco, has moved with her husband, cat and stuffed bears up to St. Helena. “It is such a fabulous room. We have so many memories there. I know everything changes. That’s the one thing you can depend on.”

Nearly 30 years ago, Whitfield’s first-ever solo gig was on New Year’s Eve.

It was 1979, and Whitfield was slated to headline the room during the first week of January.

The Plush Room, with its gorgeous stained-glass ceiling, had just reopened, having fallen into some disrepair as a mess hall and card room.

Pam Brooks was the New Year’s Eve headliner, but the room’s manager, Gary Menger, suggested that Whitfield give audiences a taste of her upcoming show by doing a short set between Brooks’ sets.

“Gary was a sweet man but not the sharpest pencil in the box,” Whitfield recalls. “He suggested I do this two days before New Year’s Eve, and by then, every pianist on the planet had a gig. I had to play for myself.”

Whitfield, who uses a wheelchair, jokes: “My pedal technique had fallen off by then. There were not lights, no microphone. I wheeled myself to the piano, flailed away and tried to sing. No one paid the slightest bit of attention. I was so relieved.”

Whitfield’s audiences will be pleased to know she’s still singing some of the same songs she sang that night, but back then, “they were an octave higher.”

“I’ve fallen into Kern again,” Whitfield says, referring to composer Jerome Kern. “That first night at the Plush Room I remember getting out my book of Kern music. He was my favorite in the ’70s and early ’80s. Then I put him aside. Last fall I was teaching a class at Napa Valley College, Great American Popular Song, and I learned more about Kern than I had known. My respect for him was renewed.”

Also in the new show’s song list is a tune given to Whitfield and Greensill by Neil Sedaka called “I Found My World in You.”The song also appears on the new Whitfield/Greensill CD, “Message from the Man in the Moon,” the couple’s 18th recording, which, not so coincidentally, will be available for purchase after the show.

The 60-year-old Whitfield notes that in addition to nearly 30 years gone by since her Plush debut, she has passed through a few different hair colors and, she hastens to add, 40 pounds that weren’t there in 1979.

In addition to Kern and Sedaka, Whitfield will be singing her fair share of romantic tunes — we are heading into a new year, after all.

Expect to hear “Isn’t It Romantic,” which Whitfield says is fun to do because “it’s not a plodding ballad. In my mind when I sing, I’m out there waltzing.”

New Year’s Eve at the Plush Room is a pretty civilized affair, according to Whitfield, who should know. “The audience tends not to be so overexcited, like kids off their meds,” she says. “And we’ll sing some songs we haven’t sung in a hundred years.”

Whitfield bristles a little at the notion of doing a sort of “greatest hits” evening.

“People love to hear the same old songs,” she says. “It’s hard to introduce new material. People get upset about it. They want to hear songs they know. I think that’s wrong, myself. I mean, listen, there was a time you didn’t know `New York, New York,’ and the only reason you learned it was by taking a chance and hearing something new.”

But this final Plush Room gig will be about memories, so Whitfield will sing some of the songs her fans want to hear.

“Everybody coming to the show has their own set of memories, so when we were planning the set list, we decided to wallow in it a little. I want to celebrate the times we’ve had. There’s no other way to get through life.”

Although animated and cheerful in conversation, Whitfield gets really excited at the mention of a project she was involved with earlier this year: a concert production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at Notre Dame de Namur University, a production that included students, community folks and pros such as Whitfield.

“Oh, my God!” Whitfield enthuses. “You go from project to project and get a certain sense of satisfaction. Then, every five or six years, you get a project that turns out to be absolutely magical. You come away feeling so renewed. I came away from Follies feeling good about life and thet world and myself — and that’s pretty darn hard.”

Sondheim music is not usually part of Whitfield’s repertoire because, she says, the songs usually need to be heard in the context of the show, surrounded by plot and character. That makes the songs difficult for Whitfield and Greensill to interpret.

But in the show — with only one rehearsal no less — Whitfield, who played aging Follies girl Sally, came alive. “I was born to play Sally!” she says. “Sally is an aging girl. She doesn’t know she’s a woman. She is one but doesn’t act like one, and that’s a good description of me.”

Whitfield got to sing without a microphone, which she hasn’t done in years. “And I hit notes I haven’t hit in public for years,” she says. “I’m proud to have pulled this one off.”

Wesla Whitfield’s The Best Is Yet to Come runs from Dec. 27 through Jan. 6 at the Empire Plush Room in the York Hotel, 940 Sutter St., San Francisco. Shows are at 8 p.m. Dec. 27-29 and Jan 4 and 5; 5 p.m. Dec. 30 and Jan. 6; 7 and 10:30 p.m. Dec. 31. Tickets are $35 to $55 and $100 for New Year’s Eve (includes a buffet and a champagne toast). Call 866-468-3399 or visit www.theempireplushroom.com for information.

To keep up with Whitfield, visit her Web site at www.weslawhitfield.com.