Julie Wilson has been a cabaret icon for as long as we can remember. In recent years, this much-beloved lady has put together a number of shows that have been modestly entertaining but not particularly challenging. Her last offering, a Dixieland affair, was a robust evening of tuneful music upon which she easily sailed; it didn't require nearly so much of her talent as her current show at The Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room, in which she is singing the works of Dorothy Fields and Amanda McBroom. And rarely have the two songwriters found a better interpreter.
The possessor of a growly, lived-in voice, Wilson attacks these songs with a maturity that has nothing to do with her age but everything to do with her wisdom. She brings something unique to almost every selection. One listens to Wilson not because she sounds so good (she doesn't), but because she sounds so right. Her emotions are split like light in a prism when she sings McBroom's "Crimes of the Heart," about an older woman's relationship with a younger man; she is at once guilt-ridden, defiant, embarrassed, and consumed by passion.
Song after song, the singer gives us fresh and enlightening renditions of McBroom's work. She lends a great sense of fun to a comic memory number called "Reynosa," offers original and provocative phrasing in "Wheels" and "The Rose," and brings much of her own personality to the fore in "I'll Never Do That Again." In short, Wilson is second only to McBroom herself as a knockout interpreter of this gifted songwriter's catalogue. That makes sense: McBroom writes with a keen understanding of women and Wilson has always been the epitome of a strong feminine presence, someone who knows her mind and tells it like it is.
When Wilson turns to the songs of Dorothy Fields, she shows yet another side of her talent. Fields' lyrics are often witty and biting; well, nobody can bite off a lyric more sharply than Julie Wilson. Give her a story song like "Do Be a Darling" (music by Cy Coleman) and the lady turns this tight, Coward-like ditty into a cabaret production number, thanks to her bawdy sense of humor. Working closely and expertly with her pianist-musical director Mark Hummel, she is light, funny, and flashy in such songs as "I Won't Dance" and "A Fine Romance" (music by Jerome Kern). Hummel's arrangements suit Wilson as well as her trademark feathers. And, with bass player Linc Milliman on hand, the music beneath Wilson has enough lift to support the singer without getting in her way. Directed by Ron Cohn, who displays a complete understanding of Wilson's talents, the show is sparkling and well crafted. The songs are intelligently placed, and the patter is written and delivered with a seamless charm.
There is a genuine sense of sisterhood in this show. Dorothy Fields, a rare female lyricist in her day--and we mean rare in quality as well as in number--is at the head of a line of talented women that leads directly to Amanda McBroom. Julie Wilson bridges the gap between the two, both generationally and musically. This smart, fresh, fully formed show is Wilson's best in recent memory.