Words About Julie

 

 

Opening new club - Hideaway Room at Helen’s -- I’m Still Here

Stephen Sondheim's declaration of show business survival, "I'm Still Here," has become a kind of Rorschach test for singers of a certain age. You can pluck any emotion you want from the monologue of a trouper who has weathered several decades of personal and professional vicissitudes: triumph, bitterness and even a zany appreciation for the absurdity of it all. But no one extracts more from the song than Julie Wilson, the 79-year-old cabaret singer who returned to the nightclub stage this weekend at the Hideaway Room at Helen's, the small Chelsea cabaret that used to be Judy's.

   "I'm Still Here" is the apt title for a show, to be repeated Thursday through Saturday, that is all about the contemplation of personal mileage. In one number after another, Ms. Wilson studies the dashboard (so to speak), calculates her personal losses and refuses to despair. As the Peter Allen-Carole Bayer Sager song in her program brightly puts it, "Everything Old Is New Again."

   Ms. Wilson's singing nowadays is not much more than an artfully expressive croak that settles on notes mostly for emphatic punctuation. But the near-disappearance of melody has freed her to become even more the consummate dramatic monologist she has always been. Until you've heard her versions of "Surabaya Johnny," or her medley of "That Old Feeling," "My Old Flame" and "I Thought About You," you've never really heard the songs' lyrics, which she       transforms into deep, emotional recollections.

   There's abundant comedy (Cole Porter's "Tale of the Oyster" is a particular delight) to balance the introspection. And finally, there's Ms. Wilson herself, in her unchanging plumage of clinging gown and boas, a gardenia tucked behind one ear. Puncturing artifice that pretends (with a clownish wink) that time really stands still, her unguarded ruminations on time, loss and the continuing lust for life add up to as complete a personal statement as a nightclub singer could hope to make. Stephen Holden, NY Times, April 2004

 


An old friend has opened a new room. Julie Wilson, the grand doyenne of Gotham cabaret, greeted a capacity aud at the new Chelsea cabaret,
the Hideaway Room at Helen's (formerly Judy's). Celebrating 65 years as an entertainer, and wearing a trademark white gardenia in her
hair,
Wilson still cuts a glamorous image.
  The voice is husky and burnished by time -- she will be 80 this fall -- yet she remains a Broadway belter of the old school, who glitters
and glows with stunning theatrical flair. She has cultivated the Rex
Harrison style of talk-singing some of her songs, but she still possesses

that rare gift of drawing her listener into the depths of a lyric.
 
Wilson appeared with Peter Allen in the short-lived 1988 gangster tuner "Legs Diamond." She reprised the musical's redeeming
moment, "The Music Went Out of My Life," which Allen penned especially for her. In a grateful bow to his memory,
Wilson offered a
rousing take on "Everything Old Is New Again."
  Recalling the era of the torch singer,
Wilson's medley of "My Old Flame," "That Old Feeling" and "I Thought About You" expressed a
wistful image of the past, prompting
Wilson's quip, "These songs may sound a little dated, but then again, so am I."
   Like the regal cabaret empress Mabel Mercer,
Wilson revealed the stories within the songs. The Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht "Surabaya
Johnny" certainly fit the pattern, and she plumbed its depth and darkness with compelling dramatic strength.
  There was also a dry sense of humor, well defined by Cole Porter's "The Tale of an Oyster," concerning a poor little oyster that longs
for a taste of high society. A longtime
Wilson specialty is Stephen Sondheim's "Can That Boy Fox Trot." Although it was cropped
from "Follies" during the show's
Boston tryout, it has become a classic cabaret showpiece with its naughty double entendre. Wilson
gave it a delectable, saucy bite.
  Closer was Sondheim's defiant stand of durability, "I'm Still Here." Wilson made it clear that she decidedly is.   Robert L. Daniels, Variety,
April 7, 2004

Julie Wilson is a phenomenon. A cabaret, musical theater and nightclub headliner for more years than most of her audience has been alive – she turns eighty next October and makes no bones about it – there are few entertainers at any age who bring such a sense of joy and exuberance to the stage. I’m Still Here, Julie’s inaugural show for the new Hideaway Room at Helen’s was in such demand that before the club officially opened, Julie’s three nights have been extended to six. The hour is a mix of anecdotes and songs, some long identified with her, some newly added to her repertoire. It is hard to conceive this chanteuse is at such an age, except that it must take a lifetime to get so good.

Julie is one of cabaret’s premier interpreters. Surabaya Johnny, the Weil/Brecht song, was delivered with as much emotion as a one-act play. Julie is, in turn, spirited, joyous, spellbinding, whimsical, and above all, optimistic. When the lyrics read “I’m here for the long run; I’ve got songs I must sing,” and “I know now I’m better than I used to be…I’m still here, and it’s spring,” it’s crystal clear Julie means it for herself.

It was a grand night for singing – and for listening – at the premier performance in the new Hideaway Room. Julie Wilson is an exquisite performer. Walk, run or swim, but get to Helen’s to catch this cabaret treasure.

Peter Leavy, Cabaret Scenes, April 2004

 

On film: Showbiz Is My Life

…Hilary Harris and Ayr Robinson's Re: Showbiz Is My Life, a succinct--a mere 53 minutes--but beguiling and illuminating introduction to three cabaret singers of different generations. They are the legendary Julie Wilson, with her trademark gardenia in her hair and her Balenciaga gowns, the last link to cabaret's glamorous past; Natalie Gamsu, a young South African of German Jewish descent who sings with passion of injustice and oppression, not just in her native country but the world over; and Baby Jane Dexter, a Greenwich Village institution who sings with a bluesy growl and who believes in performing in retirement homes as well as clubs.
These are three distinctive artists of talent, intelligence and resilience who work hard to sustain careers in small venues. They target sophisticated audiences who pay attention to what they have to say as well as their stylish delivery.  Julie Wilson, who remains grounded in her unpretentious Omaha roots despite her durable glamour, tells of a listener, new to cabaret, admitting to not having realized how much "heart, soul and guts" went into so intimate a performance art. The emotion and meaning Wilson pours into her peerless renditions of Porter, Rodgers and Hart and Gershwin is of the same intensity and conviction that Dexter and Gamsu bring to their material. The documentary's title comes from a bluesy song sung by Gamsu." Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times.

Re: Julie's concert with Amanda McBroom
"(The concert) tended, however, to put McBroom at a disadvantage, for Wilson's style is so over the top yet so grippingly real that it made McBroom's big gestures and go-for-broke emotion seem calculated and staged by comparison. In the first half of the double bill, Wilson performed the music of theater composer Stephen Sondheim. Wearing a body-hugging, black lace gown and wrapped in feather boas, Wilson -- in her late 70s, yet sporting a figure that even Jennifer Lopez should envy -- looked ready for a production of Sondheim's ode to long-ago, Ziegfeld-like glamour: Follies.
This torchy elegance provided the perfect context for a pairing of songs from Merrily We Roll Along.  Emotion made her voice even huskier than usual as she fused glowing nostalgia with surging regret in Good Thing Going,  then raced through the strings of adjectives in Not a Day Goes By before throwing herself off the song's cliffs of feeling."  Daryl H. Miller, Los Angeles Times, August 21, 2001


"Watching Julie Wilson perform is indeed an education, not to mention one of the world's great pleasures. Her confidence, showmanship and musical exuberance are irresistible, thus making her one of the greatest examples of
cabaret at its very best...  Singers have come and gone. But Wilson, thankfully, remains, and like a breeze off the bayou, she has swept back into town with "Julie Wilson in Dixieland," her most enjoyable show yet.

Now, cabaret elegance and Dixieland gusto are rarely thrust onto the same stage, but Wilson pulls it off, as she does most things, with effortless grace and ageless spirit...  This is a singer who knows how to use her voice, her body and her sense of humor to sell a song and get it right every time. She can slow things down for a tribute to singer Mabel Mercer on two Jimmy Van Heusen tunes, "But Beautiful" (lyric by Johnny Burke) and "I Thought
About You" (lyric by Johnny Mercer), and make your heart swell. Then she can turn around and start growling through "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll," a rather dirty ditty that Wilson sings with a
bawdy twinkle in her eye. But Wilson is at her best when she can cut loose, as she does on Peter Allen's "Everything Old is New Again," the hilarious "Hard-Hearted Hannah" or the classic belter "Bill Bailey."

Seeing Wilson wrapped up in all those feathers is like seeing Fred Astaire in tuxedo -- it means that whatever else might be going on, for the present moment, all is right with the world."  Chad Jones, Oakland Tribune, June 20, 2001


About Julie's new cabaret show on the songs of Dorothy Fields and Amanda McBroom: "In comparing their careers, Ms. Wilson, whose show plays through April 21, finds a deep commonality between the dreamer and the wit in their shared acknowledgment of desire. Now in her mid-70's, Ms.Wilson pours a lifetime's wisdom into each number, breaking songs into emphatic bursts of speech-song in a worn but compelling contralto.

Her extraordinarily expressive face registers a thousand emotions as she reacts seismically to each word, seemingly channeling the past. This stylized Method acting, which occasionally turns her face into a tragic clown mask, is Ms. Wilson's signature. And when the lyrics of a song are especially pungent, she invests them with the weight of a theatrical oracle.

The show, which features Mark Hummel on piano and Link Milliman on bass, is finally a distillation of a long life that  remembers love, mourns loss and embraces laughter and a fierce will to continue, despite the loss." Stephen Holden, N.Y. Times, April 2001



"Julie Wilson, the most captivating septuagenarian in cabaret, is back on her throne for a brief visit to the Algonquin’s fabled Oak Room, celebrating the songs of two polar opposites in American songwriting, the late, crusty and much adored Dorothy Fields and the hip, long-winded and very contemporary Amanda McBroom. With a purple feather boa draped sensuously around her swan neck, a skintight black lace gown clinging to her curvaceous thighs and a fresh trademark gardenia in her hair, Ms. Wilson is ready for them both. Her expressive face can turn on a dime from a mask of tragedy to a smile of mischief, and the range of the songs provides that face with ample possibilities to explore her vast acting abilities...
"A fountain of the kind of wisdom that only comes with age, she is warm, enthusiastic, sincere and generous".  Rex Reed, N.Y. Observer, April 2001



"As Julie Wilson has shown time and again in her cabaret shows, she can be everything from a flirtatious comic to a romantic tragedian to a spectral Kabuki-influenced clown twirling a feather boa and turning the nightclub stage into a ritualistic space. And in her gloriously playful new show, "Julie Wilson in Dixieland," the 70-something singer reveals still another side of her musical personality...Ms. Wilson wittily takes on the role of New Orleans-style red-hot mama." Stephen Holden, N.Y. Times, February 2000


"The naughty bravado of Mr. Coleman's collaborations with Carolyn Leigh is so perfectly suited to Ms. Wilson's worldly joie de vivre that they might as well have been written for her." Stephen Holden, N.Y. Times, October 1999.


"With her archeological talent for discoverintg buried treasures, she will dazzle you with songs you've never heard before, then turn around and amaze you with her own fresh spin on familiar material such as 'Witchcraft' that makes you listen with new ears. This perfect marriage of world-weary, golden-hearted chanteuse and literate, jazzy composer results in the kind of glamorous act you won't find anywhere but New York." Rex Reed. New York Observer, October 1999.


"Wilson's lived-in voice plucks every emotional suggestion from a lyric and finds the unblemished emotional core of every song. Her simple reading of the Coleman-Leigh classic 'It Amazes Me' was flawless...Simply put, nobody does it better than Julie Wilson." John Hoglund, Bistro Bits, October 1999.


"Talk/singing with conviction and high style, Wilson makes you pay attention, whether she's offering highly obscure Coleman songs from a never-produced show or some of his most familiar numbers." Chip Defaa, N.Y. Post, October 1999.



"If this show were a CD, you'd program it on repeat mode. If it were a book, you'd study it and memorize it and give it to your friends. But lit's live and fragile cabaret, so what you need to do is go and go and go again. And when the ageless Wilson comes to Kern and Buddy DeSylva's "Look For the Silver Lining," you'll agree that she is 'the sunny side of life.'" Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times, April 1999. ("Salute to Ziegfeld Follies" show)


"Every time Julie Wilson steps up to a microphone, listeners learn anew what genuine song interpretation is all about...To behold Wilson taking apart lyrics syllable by syllable, to hear the way she can whisper a phrase one moment, get rough with it the next, is to understand the value of the most accomplished cabaret singers...Virtually every piece that Wilson sang Wednesday night at the Plaza Tavern showed shades of drama, wit or sorrow that only a few singers are capable of bringing forth." Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune, April 1999.


"Ms. Wilson, as usual, finds surprisingly emotional subtexts in Gershwin's airy songs by infusing them with her life experience....'Someone To Watch Over Me' and 'Isn't It A Pity?' are among the numbers she turns into pointed dramatic monologues by fixing on just the right phrase from which to approach them as personal reflections." Stephen Holden, New York Times, September 1998.


"Widely recognized as the queen of cabaret...infusing everything she sings with a lifetime's accumulated wisdom and humor...her most telling moments are the ballads. Rodgers and Hart's 'This Funny World,' a song that declares in deceptively lighthearted verses that life is essentially a joke on the person living it, is given a rendition as wrenching as it is even-handed." Stephen Holden, New York Times, Feb. 27, 1998.


"In the quality that distinguishes cabaret singing from all other genres -- the interpretation and communication of lyrics -- Julie Wilson has no peer." Roy Sander, Back Stage, March 1998.


"Any show that gives Wilson a chance to wrap herself in her feather boa and project her vivid personality through 'My Old Flame,''Ain't Misbehavin',' and 'It All Depends on You' is all right with me." Chip Deffaa, N.Y. Post, February 1998.



"Julie Wilson's smoky baritone, shaped by decades of toil in saloons and cabarets, gets directly to the emotional core of a lyric, like peeling an apple, with no baggage and no detours, imparting the spicy humor, 'been around' sincerity, and stinging wisdom of a cobra with class." Deborah Grace Winer, author, The Night And The Music, 1995.



"When she performs, a whole era comes roaring back." Jennifer Senior, New York Magazine, October 17, 1997.



 About Julie's new cabaret show, Woman!: "Ms. Wilson, with her matchless dramatic versatility, goes a long way in her show toward creating a composite picture of women in every stage of life...Her show is a sharply drawn portrait gallery of women on the verge of everything from first love to lonely old age." Stephen Holden, The New York Times, March 1997.



Julie Wilson "brought insight, understanding and an ineffable sense of whimsy to a program she appropriate chose to title 'Woman.'...If her voice is a big rougher than it was a decade ago, it nonetheless resonates with the deep authority of life experience, with the capacity to communicate -- in direct, intimate, telling fashion -- the musical tales that have been the soundtrack to 20th century American life." Don Heckman, Los Angeles Times. May, 1997.



"Wilson, who defies her 72 years with her sheer elegance and wafting, multi-hued and theatrical voice, engenders a wealth of world-wise experience and seasoned talent that's as rare as it is endearing." Eric Layton, Entertainment Today, May 1997.



"There's my baby! Julie is a quintessinal cabaret performer." Arthur Pomposello, Cabaret Manager, The Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room.



"No one exemplifies a cabaret performer more than Julie Wilson. If you don't leave one of Julie's shows with more than you came in with, you were in a coma." Baby Jane Dexter, singer.



"I just recently heard Julie sing the best version I've ever heard of, 'What Is This Thing Called Love?'" Steve Ross, singer/pianist.



"Julie Wilson looks the part. She has the humor, the tolerance, she loves doing it, and it comes across so clearly." Bobby Short, singer/pianist.



"Julie Wilson is one of the best. She's where everyone else wants to be in the business, and she has no attitude. She is a totally positive role model." Erv Raible, cabaret entreneur (Eighty-Eight's and FireBird)