Review - Guess Paper Mill's Next Season & Julie Wilson Sings Billie Holiday

While her admirers are accustomed to seeing Julie Wilson make searing emotional dramas out of songs like "Surabaya Johnny" and "The Man I Love," the great lady of the cabaret stage was truly getting choked up Wednesday night just talking about her friend and vocal inspiration, Billie Holiday.

It may be common knowledge among cabaret-goers that Wilson's signature gardenia over her ear is a tribute to Lady Day's familiar fashion, but in her new Metropolitan Room engagement, Julie Wilson Sings Billie Holiday: A Tribute To Her Favorite Singer, we get a clearer picture of how a young supper club singer from Omaha was befriended by Harlem's leading jazz vocalist over a home-cooked soul food dinner.

She opens adorably flirtatious, cooing "Them There Eyes" (Maceo Pinkard/William Tracy/Doris Tauber) through the pink feathers of the boa wrapped around her neck. Her winking sassiness oozes through fun numbers like "(Ooo-Ooo-Ooo) What a Little Moonlight Can Do" (Harry Woods) and "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" (Porter Grainger/Everett Robbins).

But of course, no one can carry the torch quite like Ms. Wilson, as she demonstrates with a devastatingly slow and deliberate pairing of "I Must Have That Man" (Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields) and "I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good" (Duke Ellington/Paul Francis Webster). An emotional trio of "Trav'lin' Light" (Jimmy Mundy/Trummy Young/Johnny Mercer), "Body and Soul" (John Green/Edward Heyman/Robert Sour/Frank Eyton) and "Good Morning, Heartache" (Dan Fisher/Irene Higgenbotham/Ervin Drake) was played to pin-drop silence from the captivated crowd.

After lending quiet dignity to "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?" (Eddie Lang/Louis Alter) and "Willow, Weep For Me" (Ann Ronell), she busts out with jaunty defiance for Holiday's own "Billie's Blues."

"It takes a lot of patience to play with this old broad," she jokes of her pianist/music director Christopher Denny, no doubt referring to the fact that, at 84 years of age, the legendary Wilson is known to forget her lyrics from time to time. Denny not only cues her with subtle finesse but plays with elegance.

Perhaps it's a missed opportunity that she chooses not to include Abel Meeropol's "Strange Fruit," one of the most important songs in the history of American music, in her Billie Holiday tribute. Ms. Wilson's lyric artistry would certainly bring out insightful textures in its chilling narrative describing the horrific sight of lynched black men hanging from southern trees. But nobody could complain about her choice to end the evening with a warm and uplifting "God Bless The Child" (Billie Holiday/Arthur Herzog, Jr.) to send her guests into the chilly March evening.

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