BWW Reviews: Terri White Is Once Again Terrific As She Scores With New Show at 54 Below
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
A year ago this summer (July 31, to be exact), Terri White performed a one-off show at 54 Below that was so stirring in its show-woman ship she was voted the winner of the 2013 BroadwayWorld New York Cabaret Award for "Best One-Show Special Event." Based on the Broadway and nightclub veteran's performance in her recent June 22 show at the same club, White should be a candidate to pick up the award once again this year. Maybe it's time to just call her, "Terri Terrific."
Two score and three years ago, the 22-year-old Terri came to New York from California and since then her life has been filled with enough highs and lows to make for a compelling PBS documentary, or at the very least a 60 Minutes segment. Early in her career, she appeared on the Great White Way in shows such as Ain't Misbehavin', Barnum, and Chicago. Over the past five years, she's starred in Broadway revivals of Finian's Rainbow and Follies. In between, she was a struggling piano bar entertainer/bartender, and in 2008 was actually homeless for three and a half months. Now it seems she's quite at home in nightclubs and cabaret rooms throughout the country, where audiences are getting a lot of exercise rising from their seats for standing ovations.
White's new show, Two Score (which opened in Los Angeles in May), is a combination career biography and greatest hits package. A few songs are repeats from her 2013 set (such as the ballad, "Here's To Life"--more on that later), but that's okay because when Terri White sings a song, it's pretty much sung. In her mid-'60s, White still has the energy of a woman half her age and holds nothing back during a performance (as her frequent reaches for a towel to collect facial moisture will attest). With Bobby Peaco on piano and Ivan Bodley on bass, White bounced onto the 54 Below stage, her face glowing with joy that she was about to perform. She opened with a short, up-tempo power vocal on Shire and Maltby's "Starting Here, Starting Now," from the 1977 Off-Broadway musical revue of the same name, and when White delivered the lyric, "Now take my hand for the greatest journey heaven can allow," her thankfulness exuded from every pore.
White immediately transitioned into Tapping Terri when reminiscing about musical gigs early in her career. In 1976, she appeared in the off-Broadway show, The Club (Tommy Tune's directorial debut), in which an all-woman cast dressed as men sang lascivious songs in a turn-of-the-20th century gentleman's club. White did a nifty little tap during "If Money Talks (It Ain't On Speakin' Terms With Me)," and followed with another dance break on a swinging arrangement of "It Don't Mean A Thing," from Bubbling Brown Sugar. At the end of the number, White plunked herself down in a chair, unlaced the tap shoes and to the delight of the audience admitted, "I'm glad that shit is over." No doubt she was, but she still appeared to love every second proving that she could still hoof it across a stage.
White is at her best on power Broadway ballads with nuance that she can inject with slight touches of blues or jazz. That she doesn't push any particular style too hard makes her renditions extremely accessible. On Stephen Sondheim's "Being Alive" from Company (which sounded like White's emotional tribute to her wife of four years, and de-facto business manager, Donna Barnett), and Quincy Jones and Bernard Ighner's "Everything Must Change" (one of White's go-to numbers and what could be the theme song of her documentary), the audience at a packed 54 Below heard exactly what it sounds like when a great singer brings total commitment to a lyric. White followed with the "show stopping" section of the show, a medley filled with--what else?--her own history of singing show stoppers. White offered a mini-musical theater history lesson on four of her best known Broadway solos: "Necessity" from Finian's Rainbow, "When Your Good To Mama" from Chicago, "Who's That Woman" from Follies (see video, below), and "Thank God, I'm Old" from Barnum. You could definitely believe Terri when she sang this lyric for the first time 34 years ago and again last week:
Daddy time he
Doesn't fret me
Should he spy me
That don't upset me
Let him eye me
Come and get me
That's fine by me
Age don't worry me
The light and comic section of the set came midway when White brought out a bit from her days singing at clubs like Don't Tell Mama, The Duplex, and the late Rose's Turn in the Village. "I always wanted to do something Disney," she announced and opened a sturdy suitcase containing liquor bottles with varying volumes of liquid. Before you could say, "Ed Sullivan novelty act," White was playing bottle percussion to Peaco's vocal on "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid. It was a cute turn, but Terri killed the joke somewhat by adding martini shakers to the orchestra for a percussion on the Beatles' "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." It might have been more fun hearing her actually sing the dark John Lennon/Paul McCartney lyric of a retro-sounding song that appeared on the group's 1969 Abbey Road album. Later, White broke up the room with her vocal impression of the late Nell Carter, for whom she understudied in Ain't Misbehavin' from 1978-79. On "Mean to Me," White mimicked Carter's high-pitched, nasal staccato singing style, and at one point held a note long enough for it to sound like a buzzing mosquito until she slapped her hands together as if to kill it.
"Killing it" was the operative phrase for the last quarter of White's crowd-pleasing show. She was both funny and poignant on Sondheim's "I'm Still Here," from Follies, cleverly incorporating parody lyrics reflecting her own life and career. I got a particular kick out of, "Been through Reagan and both of the Bushes . . . and I'm here." (Aren't we all?) For an encore, she started with a conventional rendition of Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," before transforming it into an up-tempo blues that turned 54 Below into a revival meeting. The audience pretty much demanded a second encore and they were rewarded with White's jazzy, finger-snapping version of George Gershwin's classic "Summertime."
But it was on her finale following "I'm Still Here" during which Terri White defined her life and career. Holding a glass filled with her signature drink, Makers Mark Bourbon and ginger ale, she passionately yet tenderly delivered Artie Butler's introspective modern standard "Here's To Life," which has become another one of White's signature songs. Few singers can find a lyric that signifies their own life philosophy in the very first verse, but Terri White can truly feel these words because, hell, she's been here, there, and everywhere.
No complaints and no regrets
I still believe in chasing dreams and placing bets
And I have learned that all you give is all you get
So give it all you've got
If Terri White doesn't give it all she's got, nobody does. And she'll be giving it her all for a long time to come. Here's to life. Here's to Terri Terrific.