San Francisco Cabaret Review: MARY WILSON (Fairmont Venetian Room)

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by Maurice Kelly on November 1, 2012

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area,Tours


Bay Area Cabaret launched its 2012-13 season this week with a headliner sure to pull in baby-boomers by the busload:  Mary Wilson, one of the three women (along with Florence Ballard and Diana Ross) who would form the legendary 60s girl group, The Supremes.  The setting is the baroque elegance of the Fairmont’s Venetian Room, refurbished some years back to its original gilded glory—a respectful facelift for this Grande Dame of cabaret spaces.  A quick glance at the set list indicated that Ms. Wilson has not been resting on her Motown legend laurels.  Along with a selection of original Supremes hits from the 60’s, there was an intriguing olio of Jazz chestnuts (“Body and Soul,” “Stormy Weather”), slow rock ballads (Sting’s “Field of Gold,” Eric Maurice Kelly’s Stage and Cinema review of Bay Area Cabaret’s An Intimate Evening with Mary Wilson at the Fairmont Venetian Room in San FranciscoClapton’s “Tears in Heaven”), acoustic pop (Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why”), and even Joni Mitchell’s quirky anthem of aching introspection, “Both Sides Now.”  Humming a few bars from each of these, alarm bells began to go off.  Where is this train headed? Eclectic choices can sometimes take you on a welcome journey of musical rediscovery. But they can just as easily go sliding off the rails.

These concerns, thankfully, proved unfounded.  After a rocky start (endless introductions—two live and a barely audible pre-recorded one—lighting miscues, and our headliner seemingly trapped for a moment in the heavy side curtains), Ms. Wilson quickly took charge.  Sporting an eye-popping electric-blue dress and a big sweeping mane of hair, she wasted little time establishing her diva bona fides.  Just the fierce way she wielded her microphone created a thrilling mood of both power and intimacy (occasionally distancing the mic away from her unamplified voice, she could still be heard in the back of the house).  This performer, perhaps best known as a back-up singer for Diana Ross, was now front-and-center in the spotlight.  Breaking into a big sassy smile, she deadpanned, “This show is a little more about me than the Supremes.”  It was a “You GO, girl!” moment.

With “Here’s to Life,” the first in a series of juicy jazz standards, Ms. Wilson grabbed hold of the audience and held on with a firm but loving grip that didn’t relax until a mid-show costume change.  Laden with wistful reflection, this song, if handled improperly, can quickly sink into a self-indulgent wallow.  Here it felt like catching up with a wise friend who’s a mensch, someone who has come through heartbreak without bitterness and is still in love with life.  “I’ve earned the right sing this song” she claimed. Yes, Ms. Wilson, you certainly have.

Maurice Kelly’s Stage and Cinema review of Bay Area Cabaret’s An Intimate Evening with Mary Wilson at the Fairmont Venetian Room in San FranciscoSwinging into a lighter mood with “Body and Soul,” she beat some life into this warhorse by starting off slow, then suddenly bursting into an up-tempo gallop to the finish.  This is when the tight bond with her band started to really shine through.  This talented quartet of musicians (led by pianist and music director Mark Zier, who has performed with Ms. Wilson for over 20 years) had their antennae exquisitely tuned to every nuance of Ms. Wilson’s performance.  A deep and palpable sense of trust flowed between the singer and the band.  With a tiny flick of her fingers, she could turn the musical mood on a dime, injecting pulse-quickening spontaneity into even the most familiar material.  By truly “staying in the moment,” this was music-making that Deepak Chopra would approve of.  Rounding out this solid opening salvo, Ms. Wilson paid homage to one of her idols, Lena Horne, with a throaty cover of “Stormy Weather.”  Fully hitting her vocal stride by this point, she made delicious work of the long sustained notes and elastic rhythms of this languid ballad. She was clearly having a great time, and taking the audience right along with her for the ride.

Maurice Kelly’s Stage and Cinema review of Bay Area Cabaret’s An Intimate Evening with Mary Wilson at the Fairmont Venetian Room in San FranciscoStrangely, the de rigueur Motown tunes packed the feeblest emotional wallop.  Still, they were lots of fun, and the opening riffs of “My World is Empty” sent a pleasant shockwave of recognition and nostalgia through the audience.  Ms. Wilson did a completely competent job on the lead vocals, with a touch of the nitty-gritty in her delivery that added a pleasing soulful edge which was less Diana Ross, more Tina Turner.  Here was some of that gospel and blues roughness that Barry Gordy (the mastermind behind the Motown sound) had so carefully burnished off of the silky and sanitized sound of The Supremes.  A medley of “Baby Love” and “Stop in the Name of Love” was played for clumsy comic relief:  She plucked three people out of the audience to come up and be her back-up singers, then rolled her eyes and giggled as they flailed behind her in a bumpy but loving attempt at being, well, her.  This was clearly crowd-pleaser fare, which she laughingly dedicated to “all you old teenagers out there.”  Yet these songs, which made The Supremes the reigning queens of the 60’s pop charts, seemed anemic compared to the meatier stuff that came before and after.

Maurice Kelly’s Stage and Cinema review of Bay Area Cabaret’s An Intimate Evening with Mary Wilson at the Fairmont Venetian Room in San FranciscoMoving to more contemporary repertoire, her momentum rarely faltered.  Far from getting stuck in a safe rut of old-school classics, Ms. Wilson clearly enjoys and appreciates music of more recent vintage.  “Fields of Gold” was taken at a warm, sensual pace that did justice to the rich textures of Sting’s delicate melodies, and highlighted the exquisite vocal harmonies:  Ms. Wilson’s choice of a back-up singer, Parnell Marcano, was as inspired as her selection of instrumentalists.  The blending of their voices was pure and effortless, like the movements of perfectly matched dance partners.  Mr. Marcano also sang all the high soprano “ooohs” and “aaahs” in the Motown songs; he is a one-man back-up vocal phenomenon!

Two songs she recorded as a solo artist, “Life’s Been Good to Me” and “Walk the Line,” were definitely the weakest links in an otherwise strong chain of musical choices, never quite rising above pleasant and forgettable. The shadows of grief and personal tragedy crept in with “Tears in Heaven” (a touching tribute to her son who died in a car accident) and “I’m Changing,” a song from Dreamgirls which she dedicated to Florence Ballard, who died in 1976.

By show’s end, the audience had bounced up and down with at least three standing ovations, moved and energized by her powerhouse finale combo of “Someday We’ll Be Together”(The Supremes’ final big hit, before Diana Ross left the group to start a solo career)  and “Both Sides Now.”  Taking her rightful place in the limelight, Mary Wilson proved herself to be a truly great performer:  Talented, warm, funny, vulnerable, authentic and supremely confident.  This Dreamgirl definitely has the right stuff.

Maurice Kelly’s Stage and Cinema review of Bay Area Cabaret’s An Intimate Evening with Mary Wilson at the Fairmont Venetian Room in San Francisco

An Intimate Evening with Mary Wilson
The Fairmont Venetian Room in San Francisco
played October 28, 2012
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Bill Doggett November 2, 2012 at 5:14 pm

Awesome. Please come back soon again to San Francisco, Mary. There are MANY who did not know and would love to see you at additional venues.

Carl Jenkins November 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm

It is SUCH a Thrill to hear all of this! I just only wish that I could’ve SEEN it! But I am ALWAYS Proud and Pleased and BLESSED to hear of you and the ‘fam’ doing sooo triumphantly! GREAT Review of a GREAT SUPREME LADY!
Much Love,

Edwin November 7, 2012 at 7:16 am

Ms Wilson…. this is your time, you get better and better, You are really one lady who loves to sing…..keep up the good work, and Mr Marcano you and Ms Wilson make a great team, Soul with Soul, peace to you both, and Please bring the Lena Horne project to NYC, It is Time NYC Love you

danny November 24, 2012 at 6:33 pm

To me, she was a back up singer showing why she was a back up singer..not a leading voice at all. I became bored in the first ten minutes and just played with my iphone the whole time! She is definitly no Diana Ross, not even in presence!

Jim December 1, 2012 at 2:16 am

I was one of the lucky people sitting in the audience that night. Ms. Wilson truly blew the roof off the Venetian Room, in a scintillating and unforgettable tour de force. She served-up a rich, dynamic, sensitive and deeply layered performance – one that a former “co-worker” of hers (you know who I mean) could never, in a million years, have offered.

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