Cabaret queen reigns supreme

Julie Wilson, the American musical-comedy star, brings a repertoire of classic songs to the capital
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The Independent Culture

"I never thought I could sing at all," says Julie Wilson. "I can carry a tune, and that's it. But I did think I could act." Wilson's opinion of her acting ability must be as high as her opinion of her vocal talent is low, if she thinks she's managed to fool so many people.

"I never thought I could sing at all," says Julie Wilson. "I can carry a tune, and that's it. But I did think I could act." Wilson's opinion of her acting ability must be as high as her opinion of her vocal talent is low, if she thinks she's managed to fool so many people.

Eighty in October, the musical-comedy performer, recording artist, and, above all, queen of American cabaret will be appearing at Pizza on the Park, London, from 4 May, in a "figure-hugging" shiny dress and with a gardenia, as ever, tucked in her hair.

Of her 65 years in show business, more than 50 have been spent singing in clubs, starting at a time when such establishments were places to drink at tables and listen to sophisticated songs performed by a mature person in evening dress. Most of these temples of metropolitan smartness have fallen victim to mass culture, but, like another New York survivor, Bobby Short (30 years at the Cafe Carlyle), Wilson can sing, as she used to in Follies, "I'm Still Here."

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Wilson headed east as a young girl and danced in the chorus at the Copa and the Latin Quarter, where she started singing. Taking the soubrette part of Bianca in the second Broadway cast of Kiss Me, Kate, she made the first of her many visits to London to open Cole Porter's masterpiece here. She has appeared in several Sondheim shows, has had a New York nightclub named after her, and made numerous recordings of the works of her beloved composers, which she likens to Shakespearean sonnets.

Certainly, her performances show that they are open to a similar range of interpretation. "I always feel like I'm singing to one person," she says, and anyone who has heard her knows that she can take that person on an emotional journey within one song, from, say, sorrow to reflection to detached amusement and back again.

Besides the tunes of the great American songwriters - Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart - Wilson's repertoire includes "saucy" numbers - or so they would have been regarded when she first sang them, half a century ago.

They include a specialty number called "I'm a Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad Woman but I'm Good, Good Company." "There's a lot of work with the feather boa in that song," Wilson says. It may sound odd for a near-octogenarian to be putting over sexy numbers, but Wilson's style has allowed her to age gracefully. Rather than smoulder her way through a song, she has always performed with the slightly unbelieving delight of a gal from Omaha who has landed in a big-city clover patch. This has segued nicely into an older woman's amusement at the whole silly business of what we used to call Topic A.

Wilson's longevity in the business has been not only a source of pleasure to her fans but exasperation to her nearest and dearest. Twenty years ago, she says, she had just finished a tour as Desiree in A Little Night Music and was visiting her mother, who said to her, "Don't you ever get tired of showing off?" "I gave her a real Gary Cooper," says Wilson cheerfully. "I said, 'Nope.'"

Julie Wilson, Pizza on the Park, 11 Knightsbridge, London SW1 (020-7235 5550), 4 to 16 May

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