Wesla Whitfield, the greatest cabaret singer in the world, is singing for one night only this Saturday at the Oak Room
of the Algonquin Hotel. Two shows, at nine and 11:30. If you’ve never seen her, call now and make a reservation. It isn’t cheap, but it’s definitely worth it.
If you need further persuading, here’s part of a piece I wrote a few years ago about Whitfield and the Oak Room:
Eighty well-dressed people sit silently in a darkened, oak-paneled room in the center of Manhattan. Some have plates of food in front of them, others have drinks at their elbows, but nobody is paying much attention to food or drink right now, not even the waiters. Instead, they’re all listening to a woman seated on a high stool placed in the bend of a piano, her handsome face lit by a single baby spotlight. Her name is Wesla Whitfield, and she’s singing a song everyone here knows by heart: Somewhere over the rainbow/Bluebirds fly/Birds fly over the rainbow/Why then oh why can’t I? It takes a lot of nerve, and a lot of talent, to sing a song like that in a room like this. The woman has both, which is why the crowd is so quiet: you could hear a pin drop across the street…
[Whitfield] has been a West Coast cult figure for years; her full, fine-drawn mezzo voice, easy swing, and miraculously direct way with a lyric are in the great tradition of American popular singing, and more than a few admirers, myself included, consider her the best cabaret singer in the world. But it was only after she opened at the Oak Room that the rest of the world caught on. “It was a very big deal,” she says of her first booking in the room where she now sings regularly to sold-out houses. “I had tried for five years to get a gig here. And when I finally got one, it was a do-or-die thing. The first night, Al Hirschfeld, Burton Lane, George Shearing, and Michael Feinstein were all sitting three feet from me. It was terrifying.”
What makes the Oak Room so special? Obviously, the singers who perform there are the heart of the matter, though the room itself contributes significantly to the effect they make. Cabaret is an intimate art, and the 80-seat Oak Room, with its amber sconces and red velvet banquettes, is as up close and personal as a love seat at midnight: there is no finer place to listen to songs of passion and despair. “It’s nice singing in a room this small,” Whitfield says, “because I get feedback from the people. I know what works–and what doesn’t work. When they’re bored, you can hear them scrunching up their toes in their shoes. You can get that kind of response in a larger room, but it’s very slow, and very limited.”
Enough said? See you there.