In 1997, Lillias White won a Tony, as well as Drama Desk, Outer Circle Critics and People’s Choice awards, for her performance in “The Life” on Broadway. There’s no doubt she deserved the acclaim, judging from her rendition of the show’s big number, “The Oldest Profession.” As a weary prostitute singing “I ain’t no machine — my head hurts, my feet hurts and everything in between,” White blends power and pathos to create a memorable flesh-and-blood character.
A thoroughly professional performer, she possesses a dynamic vocal instrument, capable of hitting and sustaining high notes and nailing low ones with solid, confident accuracy. She scats with the best of them, all the while shimmying, shaking and striking sassy poses to jack up the energy level.
She doesn’t need to do so much. If anything, her energy should be modulated and scaled down to fit an intimate cabaret format. White often appears to be belting out to the last row of a Broadway balcony.
Planted on the Cinegrill stage, wearing a long white sheath, with boyishly short hair, bright saucer eyes and glittering teeth, White was an imposing presence.
She began her program effectively with “Blue Moon” and “Old Devil Moon,” then launched into a playful, childishly naughty version of “Ooh, What You Said!,” by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. “Mama Look a Booboo,” by contrast, felt frenetic, and White had trouble coaxing the audience to sing along.
The warmth of her voice is well showcased in “Born for You,” a touching ballad by David Zippel and David Pomeranz, which was written for Disney’s “Hercules” but not used on the soundtrack. In numbers like this, when she doesn’t push, White’s impact is most keenly felt. From sensitivity, she veered to frightening toughness with “When You Think of Me” (“This song is dedicated to all my exes — may they rest in peace”), a cutting-edge musical expression of vengeful pleasure at her former lover’s pain. She sang “Believe,” Cher’s comeback song, stressing joy and freedom in her interpretation rather than the feminist anger Cher projected.
The show’s only major miscalculation was White’s choice of “The Way He Makes Me Feel,” sung by Barbra Streisand in “Yentl.” The musical intervals are so specifically Streisand, and so wedded to the film’s story, that they don’t work when adapted to a funky, bluesy approach. You feel White straining throughout this number, in contrast to the complete control she exerted on the program’s other songs.
Patter between selections should be trimmed for pacing, and the act needs a few more familiar standards. But the blend between vocalist and backup band is ideal. Pianist Jerry Peters rates applause for his supple, hot-cool touch. His tasty jazz harmonies highlight the rich timbre in White’s voice, and interact perfectly with Rickey Minor’s fine bass work and expert drumming by Land Richards.