“I Am Changing,” Mary Wilson sings during her stint at Feinstein’s, and something of a jolt sparks through the customers. Here is Wilson — billed as “the original Dreamgirl” — singing one of the main songs from the hit movie version of the hit musical inspired by Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary herself, i.e., the Supremes. Wilson’s rendition is so well sung, and so personal, that the reaction borders on astonishment.
Would that the rest of “Up Close” were as carefully and cannily selected. Wilson spends the first half hour of her 80-minute set singing what might be considered typical cabaret fare (Chaplin’s “Smile,” Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul,” Mercer’s “I Remember You,” Jobim’s “Girl From Ipanema”). After a spoken interlude in which Wilson’s personality begins to break through, it’s back to more impersonal songs. Wilson says that after a career full of “oohs and ahs and baby, babys,” it’s time she got to do what she wants to do.
Agreed. But the effect for most of the set is of a highly proficient singer — in admittedly spectacular shape for her 62 years, 48 of which have been spent in showbiz — singing songs from other singers’ songbooks. With Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” she starts to cook, with a valuable assist from Richie Cannata on sax. (Cannata is a star of the evening, contributing standout solos to at least five numbers.)
Eventually, Wilson breaks down and sings a Supremes number — “My World Is Empty Without You.” With some of her fans joining in from ringside, she requires no backup singers.
Suddenly, it feels as if we’ve switched channels. A listener unfamiliar with Wilson might well sit through an hour of “Up Close” wondering who this performer is, and why is she here? The Supremes song suddenly informs us that this is a major singing star; “I Am Changing” overwhelms us; and Wilson’s rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” tops them both. Whoever routined the act has seen fit to cloak the talent and the personality far too long. Two or three changes in the song lineup, early on, would do wonders. Those last 20 minutes make it clear Wilson is still very much a major talent.