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All That Jazz: Wanda Houston Sings with Heart & Soul

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Houston sings at Napa in Great Barrington on Friday nights

When Wanda Houston sings her zippy version of “Over the Rainbow,” it’s as if you’ve never heard the Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg tune before.  When she puts a gospel spin on Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’,” she removes all the corn and replaces it with soul.  And when Wanda Houston sings Rodger & Hart’s “The Lady is a Tramp,” you imagine Sinatra spinning in his grave.  Yes, her voice is that good. Since this summer, Houston has become a standard herself. Her weekly Friday night gig at Napa in Great Barrington—she goes on at 9 PM and her third set doesn’t wind down ‘til after midnight—attracts a loyal following of night-owls who chat her up while she’s on her break. (She also sings every other Thursday night at the Egremont Inn, and she’ll be at Castle Street Cafe on Saturday November 15.) When the lights are dimmed and Wanda’s five-piece band sets up on Fridays, Napa suddenly feels like a big-city supper club but without the big-city attitude or prices. “I love that there’s no cover charge and no minimum,” says Houston. “I think people are craving this type entertainment and intimacy.”

Houston discovered our region seven years ago when she learned that her old Chicago pal Michael Berekley was the artistic director of TriArts in Sharon. (“We performed together at Marriott’s Great America when we were young,” she recalls. ) Living in New York (where the Times Ben Brantley called her “terrific” in off-Broadway’s A Good Swift Kick) after stints in Los Angeles and Australia, she accepted Berkeley’s invitation to play the title role in Hello, Dolly! in 2004 at TriArts. “I fell in love with the area,” says Houston, who now lives Connecticut’s Canaan Valley. “I had a car that was falling apart, and I decided I would stay as long as the car held up. I’m still driving it!”

She marvels at the natural beauty and history of the Berkshires and Hudson Valley. “I love living where the country started and seeing houses from the 1700s,” she says in a voice as delectable as chocolate mousse. “As a child, I used to do a lot of jigsaw puzzles with pictures of barns and rolling hills and now this is where I live,” she says with a giddy reverence. Having attended Ripon College in a small Wisconsin town, she knows that our neck of the woods is unique. “The rural Midwest is very different than this type of rural,” she says. “The people here are savvy and sophisticated.” And they are not afraid to get up and jitterbug between tables. “I love when the couples dance as I sing,” she says. “That makes me so happy.”

Rural Intelligence Arts
 Wanda Houston
@ Napa
293 Main Street, Great Barrington; 413.528.4311
Friday nights at 9
@ Castle Street Cafe
10 Castle Street, Great Barrington; 413.528.5244
Saturday, November 15 at 8 PM
@ The Egremont Inn
10 Old Sheffield Road, S. Egremont; 413.528.2111
Every other Thursday (call to check schedule)



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Posted by Dan Shaw on 11/12/08 at 09:30 AM • Permalink