An opening medley by Mike Greensill’s Trio creates the pleasant atmosphere of old friends gently jamming. It warms The Metropolitan Room. “You forgot about me,” comes a quiet voice from in front of the stage. Greensill pulls up his wife’s wheelchair as he has done many hundreds of times before. The affectionate, symbiotic relationship is apparent in every aspect of the evening from the way Wesla Whitfield tilts her head back (without turning) and raises her eyebrows when he plays to the brief exchanges between numbers. Their single duet, Let’s Get Away From It All (Matt Dennis/Tom Adair) has great charm, despite Greensill’s irregular key. One longs for more of these.
A brief, ballad-like rendition of The Best Things in Life Are Free (B.G. De Sylva/Lew Brown/Ray Henderson) and an up tempo Who Will Buy? (Lionel Bart/Rodgers & Hammerstein), might indicate a cheery evening. Such is not the case. “I am finding the year 2011 to be exceptionally challenging,” Whitfield begins. “It reminds me of an old computer game called, Smite Me…a little guy trying to build a temple in the middle of the screen has to run from bolts of lightening…” Though she goes on to say that, like life, there will be upbeat songs as well as “bummers,” the overall feeling is battleworn.
This in itself, is not an issue. The lack of any through line is. Songs seem as completely disconnected from one another as they are from Whitfield. Noel Coward’s Mad About the Boy Is prefaced by conjecture as to its source of inspiration, distancing the singer from a lyric which might otherwise lend itself to intimate performance. A lovely story about her parent’s penchant for dancing leads not to dancey tunes, but rather the Patsy Cline number: Walkin’ After Midnight (Alan Black/Don Hecht). It suits Whitfield’s voice. There are moments we hear her coloratura soprano gracefully sail a line above middle range. Still, its intro sets up other expectations.
Whitfield’s version of Cole Porter’s You’re the Top is a highpoint. Calling it “the most devious of songs” because a singer must come in on odd, unexpected beats, she then delivers it perfectly. Another is the encore, ‘Bein Green (Kermit’s song by Joe Raposo) which is offered with touching, melodic subtly. “This song is very close to me,” she admits. It’s evident. And here’s the rub: Wesla Whitfield can communicate, not just sing. Her small voice draws one in. When arrangements don’t swallow her, phrasing is thoughtful. Patter is genuine and appealing. One wants to take a musical journey with Whitfield. Unfortunately, there is none. Only songs.
The Best Things in Life
Westla Whitfield, Vocals
Mike Greensill, Musical Director/Piano
John Wiitala, Bass
Vince Lateano, Drums
The Metropolitan Room
34 West 22nd Street
Through June 12, 2011