Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A Mellow Evening with Wesla Whitfield
Legendary Wesla Whitfield is getting everyone in a lovely mellow mood through December 31 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center with some exciting cool arrangements by Mike Greensill assisted by the "le jazz hot" young bassist John Wiitala. For 80 minutes, this mixture of jazz sensibility puts the audience in a melodious frame of mind. Ms. Whitfield enchants and mesmerizes, not only with her music but also with her phrasing of each and every song. Even her comments between songs are lovingly spoken. There is no pretentiousness about her when she is talking to the audience. Variety said it best: "She has a cunning way of reinventing a ballad with torchy finesse." This "phenomenal woman" was recently profiled in the October 2005 issue of Oprah Winfrey's "O Magazine".
Wesla's new show is called High Standards, and she and her small duo reach great heights with some wonderful standards by Cole Porter, Paul McCartney, Lerner and Loewe, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg to name a few. The program opens up with a cool jazz version of Sunny Clapp's "Girl of My Dreams," played with great passion by Mike Greensill on piano and John Wiitala on bass. Ms. Whitfield comes out and sings a perfect rendition of "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" from My Fair Lady. She continues with another Lerner and Loewe song, "Show Me," from Camelot. She has a beautiful dry edge when she seductively underscores these ballads.
Ms. Whitfield's vocals on Frank Loesser's "If I Were a Bell" from Guys and Dolls are distinctive and her phrasing is right on the mark. She swings into "I Double Dare You," with Mike Greensill doing a solid solo on the keyboards. Her mellifluous voice is harmonious on Brooks Bowman's 1935 song, "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," with the dulcet tones of John Wiitala's bass.
The singer has a deliciously brittle and cutting sense of humor, especially when giving a little story about the current administration and then going into an enlivened "They Got A lot of Coffee in Brazil." Cole Porter is represented with a syncopated "Get Out of Town" followed by the moody resonance of his "I Concentrate on You". Wesla talks about the anniversary of John Lennon's death by singing one of her favorite songs written by Lennon and McCartney called "In My Life."
Wesla does a wide-eyed, snappy version of "I've Got My Fingers Crossed" and then segues into "Hooray for Love." The artist also pays tribute to the divine Ella Fitzgerald with a smooth improvisation of Washington/Young's "My Foolish Heart" and Koehler/Arlen's "Let's Fall in Love." "Whistling Away the Dark" by Mercer and Mancini is affectionately rendered. Wesla does a complete about face with a hilarious version of Harburg/Arlen's "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead" from The Wizard of Oz. The clever song has never been sung like this before. She gave the audience an encore by singing one of my favorite songs, the Haymes/Brandt classic "That's All," which I used to hear on WLW-Cincinnati every night introducing the American Airlines hour. As the Boston Globe has so rightly put it, "She brings back a lost art by making old songs sound new every time she sings them."
Wesla Whitfield, with husband Mike Greensill's impeccable jazz influenced arrangements on piano and bass, plays the New Conservatory Theatre Center main theatre through December 31 with two shows on New Years Eve at 8pm and 10:30 PM. For tickets please call their box office at 415-861-8972 or online at www.nctcsf.org.