When the lights come up tonight at the Cinegrill at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, Weslia Whitfield will be seated on a comfortable barstool in the crook of a grand piano. A study in elegance, her short hair lightly tinged with gray, she will sing her program of songs by Victor Young, Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hart with the insights of a born actress and the graceful hand and arm movements of the dancer she once was.
Many in her audience, watching the theatrical mastery of the stage she exerts without moving from her stool, entranced by her strong sense of swing, her crystal-clear voice and the thoughtful delivery she brings to her lyrics, will be unaware that Whitfield is paralyzed below the waist. Gently lifted onto her stool by her husband and accompanist, Mike Greensill, while the room is still dark, she will be lifted back into a wheelchair when the lights are dimmed at the close of her set.
"I really don't want to be thought of as the 'gimp of the week,' " explained Whitfield (who pronounces her first name "Wesla") in a conversation last week. "And singing from a wheelchair can be very distracting to an audience. So my husband lifts me up on the stage, places me in this little stool we carry around with us, and I sit there and get to sing the great American popular songs."
Nearly 20 years ago, Whitfield, whose singing has been described by the San Francisco Examiner's Phil Elwood as "the best of all possible musical experiences," heard the crack of a handgun that changed her life in the blink of an eye.
Studying opera and dance at San Francisco State University, looking forward to a career on the musical stage, the Santa Maria-born Whitfield was walking home one night when she was accosted by a pair of teenagers.
"They couldn't have been more than 12 or 13 years old," she recalled.
When she ignored the boys and walked on, Whitfield suddenly heard the gunshot and felt an impact that drove her to the ground. A .22-caliber slug, small enough to cause little damage in other parts of the body, had struck her spine, paralyzing her for life. The assailants were never caught.
Several dark, chaotic years followed, in which Whitfield experienced roller-coaster emotions of anger and denial before she began to realize that her talents had not become paralyzed along with her legs. As her emotional recovery progressed, she began to acquire the skills needed to reach the performing career that always had been her goal.
By 1980, Whitfield was beginning to appear in San Francisco cabarets. A brief, rapturous, but ultimately unhappy love affair had the positive result of giving her a new perspective on her material.
"That relationship, miserable as it turned out to be, was the first time since I was shot that I once again had a sense of myself as a sexual being," she explained candidly. "All the love songs that I'd sung, as songs, became real to me. There's no more phony emotion."
In 1986, marriage to Greensill, who had been her accompanist for the previous four years, capped a recovery that Whitfield could only have dreamed about in the bleak years after she was wounded.
In the mid-'80s, her coolly precise, yet emotionally gripping style, reminiscent of Lee Wiley and Irene Kral, became a staple at San Francisco's Plush Room and Buckley's Bistro. An appearance at Michael's Pub in Manhattan brought rave reviews, as did a series of performances at New York City's Cabaret Convention.
More recently, she has been appearing regularly at the Algonquin Hotel's prestigious Oak Room before audiences that often include entertainers such as Bobby Short, Margaret Whiting and Tony Bennett. Her remarkable vocal sound, intelligent readings and sassy humor have made her performances must-go events for both lay and professional listeners.
"This wonderful singer," Bennett says, "thrills me when I hear her."
These days, the "accident," as Whitfield, now 48, once described the shooting, rarely surfaces in her conversation. And the only reference she makes to her disability is during a discussion of the wheelchair lifts on New York City buses that now allow her to move freely on her own around Manhattan, where she and Greensill maintain a small apartment for the trips in from their San Francisco home.
"And most of the time," she adds with a chuckle, "they don't even make me pay the fare."
Whitfield's appearance at the Cinegrill will run for three weeks, with a different program each week. The first will be a West Coast premiere of her much-praised show "Street of Dreams," with songs by Young, among others. The second week will be devoted to "Strictly Standards."
"Which is," Whitfield says, "just another way of saying we're just going to do anything we darn well please. But you can probably expect to hear things like 'It Could Happen to You,' 'This Can't Be Love' and 'Out of This World.' "