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Mary Wilson: Up Close

The former Supremes singer's highly accomplished cabaret debut at Feinstein's defies expectations. logo
Mary Wilson
It has become almost obligatory for female singers of what we term "a certain age" to include "Here's to Life" in their cabaret act, with its declaration of a life with no past regrets almost always slotted in the show's encore slot. So it's the first sign that Mary Wilson -- yes, that Mary Wilson, one of the original Supremes -- plans to defy our expectations when she opens her highly accomplished cabaret debut at Feinstein's at the Regency, Mary Wilson: Up Close, with this particular number.

Throughout her ever-slightly rambling 75-minute set, the surprises keep coming -- mostly for better and occasionally not. The first two caveats any audience member should be aware of are these: First, despite the show's title, Wilson -- a remarkably well-preserved 63-years-young -- skimps on the biographical patter. There's an allusion here to being a grandmother of eight, a brief mention there of returning to NYU to get a college degree in the 1990s, a slight recollection of meeting the Pope in Rome. But backstage dish -- especially about her fellow Supremes -- is essentially nonexistent. You may be seeing her up close in this intimate boite, but if you want the real life story, go buy her memoirs.

More surprisingly, it's not until about three-quarters into the act that she gives the fans what they want -- and I suspect not entirely wholeheartedly -- with a spirited rendition of one of the Supremes' lesser Holland-Dozier-Holland hits, "My World Is Empty Without You." And that's it. If you want to hear "Baby Love" or "Stop in the Name of the Love," you're out of luck.

Then again, since Wilson, by her own admission, was relegated to the oohs, aahs, and babys on most of the Supremes' songs, it makes perfect sense she's chosen material that actually lets her showcase her robust voice in a more flattering way. And for the most part, that means singing ballad after ballad -- with a brief foray into lighter territory with a samba-influenced "I Remember You," followed directly by the Brazilian favorites, "The Girl from Ipanema" and "Mas Que Nada."

To call Wilson's set list eclectic is a bit of an understatement -- at times, it feels like you're in a bar listening to someone else's selections on a jukebox -- but one can't help but be impressed with how expertly Wilson can move from style to style, era to era. Not every vocalist can handle a chestnut like "Smile" or a modern standard like Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why" with equal aplomb.

Still, three songs stand out as the act's true highlights, both for their lyrical interpretation and Wilson's obviously deep connection to the material: Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" (accompanied on opening night by Joel's saxophonist, Richie Cannata); Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," which has rarely sounded more appropriately worldly-wise; and "I Am Changing," the extraordinary Henry Kreiger-Tom Eyen ballad from Dreamgirls -- the musical based on the life of the Supremes -- which Wilson touchingly dedicated to her late bandmate Florence Ballard.

Wilson also defied expectation in another very positive way. Despite some serious sound issues on opening night and an occasionally too-rowdy audience, she handled these obstacles with exceeding grace and good humor instead of diva-like tantrums. Wilson seems truly grateful to be on the stage and still entertaining her fans -- which may be why her encore was particularly fitting: "What A Wonderful World."

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