Wesla Whitfield

WESLA WHITFIELD

 

BACKSTAGE
January 06, 2009
Reviewed by David Finkle
There's any number of people who'll tell you that at the moment there's no better purveyor of standards in America than Wesla Whitfield. I'm one of them. When it comes to
Whitfield, I'm not a reviewer; I'm a dyed-in-the-wool fan. My conviction about her superiority was  anything but shaken after she'd finished a few days ago the first show of a four-performance weekend at the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel with hubby Mike Greensill at the piano, of course.

It's not just the quality of the voice the shimmering sound she has that gives every song she sings the vital quickness of life. It's not just that she considers every word of a lyric and locates in each phrase the emotion, the humor, the whatever it is that the wordsmiths put there. It's a combination of the voice and the consideration and, of equal importance, her sunny disposition, which this outing she established immediately in her opener, "My Shining Hour" (
Johnny Mercer-Harold Arlen). When she sang about what was indeed to be a shining hour, she was the very embodiment of Mercer's "calm and happy and bright."

Whitfield progressed to the Gershwin brothers' "Fascinatin' Rhythm," during which she and Greensill explored several fascinatin' rhythms. Her chat was always happy and bright, although she didn't always limit it to calm. She certainly didn't when she included "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead" (E.Y. Harburg-Arlen) and said that these days patrons often think she's being political by chanting it. She is, she confides.

By the time Whitfield reached the jubilant Wizard of Oz classic, she'd already pulled a few neat tricks from her sleeve. Joking about the recession, she glided into a medley of "We're in the Money" (Al Dubin-Harry Warren), "Money Makes the World Go Around" (Fred Ebb-John Kander), and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (Harburg-Jay Gorney). As clever a trick and a bit subtler were her back-to-back versions of "Bali Ha'i" and "Surrey With the Fringe on Top." Needless to say, they're both by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers and couldn't be a better pairing to show what the R&H range could be.

Whitfield cherishes words to such an extent that she introduced the Lorenz Hart-Richard Rodgers "Isn't It Romantic?" by saying it includes a thought she finds exceedingly poetic. It turns out not to be the phrase "sweet symbols in the moonlight," which she apparently considers a little pretentious, but the sentence "Isn't it romantic merely to be young on such a night as this?" After making a spellbinder of the tune, she said she's decided what Hart meant by the thought was that romance confers youth on couples no matter their age.

 

Wheelchair-bound, Whitfield has taken to steering herself into the room and up to the riser, where Greensill swiftly and deftly pulls her up the few inches. She leaves by reversing the action and somehow manages to convey throughout that she's not confined by the chair; she occupies it as an 18th-century lady might occupy a sedan or a 20th-century driver would operate a revved Indianapolis 500 race car. There's no need to say more power to her, because she makes it clear she's already as powerful as she needs or wants to be. She couldn't be righter.