About midway through her performance Friday night at San Francisco’s Plush Room, singer Wesla Whitfield jauntily pulled out a bottle of Robitussin and set it on the piano.
Not too long afterward, between tunes, she took a swig, and later, another, remarking that it was the kind without alcohol, which “makes you feel even weirder” than the kind with alcohol.
But what’s weird for Whitfield wasn’t for the audience.
The fact that she couldn’t suppress a cough during the moments when she wasn’t singing simply made her all the more magical and enchanting when she was. Could there be a better picture of the ultimate in professionalism?
A longtime favorite Bay Area songstress, Whitfield is marking her 26th year at the intimate cabaret room with a jazzy (but not too jazzy) show called “Just in Time,” a title she joked is a euphemism for simply doing anything she wants. She does it so very well, as do her stalwart accompanists, pianist/arranger (and husband) Mike Greensill and bassist John Wiitala.
Among the evening’s high points in an impeccably paced show featuring no lows were Jimmy Dorsey and Paul Madeira’s “I’m Glad There Is You” and Bud Green and Michael Edwards’ “Once in a While,” which she called two “wildly romantic” ballads from her latest album.
“Livin’ on Love” was released last year.
At first, she said, she hesitated about performing the Gershwins’ overdone “The Man I Love,” but the audience was glad she resisted her initial reluctance. While a good song is a song, Whitfield’s one-of-a-kind interpretations set to Greensill’s skillful arrangements bring new insights into songs you’ve heard a million times.
It was likewise with her thrilling, sentiment-filled opening tune, Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser’s “Heart and Soul,” a version sounding nothing like that favored by amateur and non-piano players across the land.
Loesser also was nicely represented by Greensill and Wiitala’s “overture” before Whitfield came onstage.
They played “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” from “Guys and Dolls” just a few minutes before Whitfield herself jumped into a bouncy version of the show’s title tune.
She swung with Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern’s “Pick Yourself Up” (inserting some political anti-Bush humor) and with Jerry Bock, Larry Holofcener and George Weiss’ “Too Close for Comfort.” She calmed things down to goose bump-inducing levels with Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jule Styne’s “Just in Time,” to which Wiitala’s haunting bass was the sole accompaniment, and with Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “Time after Time.”
She didn’t go wrong with a novelty tune, Dave Frishberg’s truly funny “The Sports Page,” while she closed with Jimmy Webb’s sad “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” the newest tune in the bunch, which she said was about unfulfilled dreams. Somber and heart-rending, the song provided the pitch-perfect ending to an evening of heart-rending, soul-satisfying music.
IF YOU GO
Wesla Whitfield ???½
Where: Empire Plush Room, York Hotel, 940 Sutter St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 5 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $32.50 to $37.50
Contact: (415) 885-6800 or