Voluptuous as a sundae topped with a froth of whipped cream, Mary Wilson opened a two-weekend return engagement at San Francisco’s Empire Plush Room Tuesday.
Looking every inch the dream girl in a beaded black dress with a rebellious spaghetti strap, Wilson serenaded her appreciative audience with a slate of songs she called ballads, though the actual repertoire encompassed bossa nova, pop, folk and jazz.
The voice, which famously backed Diana Ross for a decade, wrappedthe room like a velvet scarf with Tina Turner fringing, opening with Artie Butler’s lush ode “Here’s To Life.” Charlie Chaplin’s classic “Smile” followed, as Wilson found her stride and settled into the room.
Seemingly unaware of her big gay following filling half the room on Tuesday, Wilson encouraged the ladies in the house to cuddle into their men for “Body and Soul,” with its seldom-sung verse. The tempo picked up as Wilson shimmied into “The Girl From Ipanema” and the Sergio Mendes and Brazil ’66 hit “Mas Que Nada.”
Wilson’s patter is all homegirl simple, yet sly. She acknowledges the history that got her to this stage with appreciation, but makes it clear that was then, this is now. “Maybe just one,” is her allusion to possibly dipping into the Holland-Dozier-Holland songbook that made the Supremes one of the top acts of the 1960s.
After songs by Bonnie Raitt and Billy Joel and a charming cover of the Norah Jones charter “Don’t Know Why,” she made good on the promise with an energetic “My World Is Empty Without You,” sharing the spotlight for exceptional featured riffs by band members Fil Lorenz, Torrance Brewster, Sam Bevan, Gary Claude and musical director-pianist Tammy Hall. It’s a seamless ensemble piece, made even more notable by Wilson’s telling that she had not met the very talented musicians prior to rehearsal earlier that day.
“It may have looked like the Supremes,” Wilson said of the musical “Dreamgirls,” pausing for effect before adding, “but I didn’t get paid, so it definitely wasn’t about us.”
Her joke told, she pays tribute to her backup sister — the late Florence Ballard — with “I Am Changing,” one of the songs from “Dreamgirls” sung by Effie White, the character based in part on Ballard’s experience of being dismissed from the group.
Now living in Las Vegas to be near her eight grandchildren, Wilson has borne her share of personal hardships. She survived a heart attack last year and sharp-eyed audience members may spy the name Rafi tattooed on her right shoulder — a tribute to the 14-year-old son she lost in a car accident in 1994.
In her closing number, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” Wilson taps into her cumulative life experiences, elevating the charming folk song to a theatre piece of melancholy understanding.
IF YOU GO
Where: Empire Plush Room, York Hotel, 940 Sutter St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday; closes Dec. 16
Tickets: $52.50 to $57.50
Contact: (866) 468-3399; www.theempireplushroom.com