BWW Review: Tony Award Winner Lillias White Makes Divalicious Return to OC's Segerstrom Center
During the opening night performance of her fun return engagement at Segerstrom Center for the Arts' Cabaret Series at the Samueli Theatre, Tony Award winner Lillias White felt strongly about explaining the motivation for her new show.
"Every time I turn on the TV, I'm crying!" she confessed to an agreeable crowd. "The world is just a shit show right now!"
She blamed the troubles of the world mostly on the current leader of our country and his political party's polarizing policies-an understandably pointed declaration that would have probably gotten more irked responses in the not-so-distant past, back when Orange County was once more popularly known as a red-leaning enclave of the state.
But on this night-the first of three scheduled concerts through January 25, 2020-the appreciative audience was squarely on her side regardless of political affiliation, especially when she declared that she was calling her latest show "the Happy Show," as a way to combat all the sadness and fear that have overtaken our world. Joined on stage by her talented-and gleefully playful-artistic director/accompanist Abdul Amid, Ms. White definitely accomplished her goal of making us smile... while also gifting us with a heaping portion of exactly why she has remained one of musical theater's most treasured voices.
Her beaming joy and sassiness began with the aspirational John Kander and Fred Ebb tune "Say Yes" from the 1971 musical 70, GIRLS, 70, followed by "It's Not Where You Start" from the 1973 musical SEESAW written by Dorothy Fields and Cy Coleman. Both songs-which set the evening's tone that was mostly on the fun side-were clear expressions of her life's philosophy: to welcome any and all opportunities to lead a happy life and to push away any negativity.
Thus, to ensure a peppy set list, she peppered her show with songs like the adorably bouncy Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen hit "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" and an exuberant take on Queen's "You're My Best Friend." She even pays tribute to her favorite Saturday morning TV program by proudly singing the theme song to "Mighty Mouse" ("Here I Come to Save the Day!"), part of a fond memory recalling a happy childhood growing up in Brooklyn, New York.
While she belted out big notes on the upbeat songs, her glorious vocals truly get a controlled workout on slower ballads like the torchy 1952 jazz standard "That's All" (which somehow still ends in a giddy way) or her jazzy take on Barbra Streisand's "The Way He Makes Me Feel" written by her pals Alan and Marilyn Bergman for the movie Yentl. She impressed the audience even more with a lovely rendition of Aretha Franklin's soulful "A Brand New Me."
But, of course, most of Ms. White's fans in the audience know her best from her remarkable work on the Broadway stage, and she did not disappoint with her offering of a Brooklyn-to-Broadway medley which began with a spunky revisit to "Thank God I'm Old," a song from the musical BARNUM which marked her Broadway debut, followed by the wonderfully jazzy gospel-ized "Brotherhood of Man" from her work on the 1995 revival of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING opposite Matthew Broderick.
"I got to sing this every night surrounded by so many men!" She squealed, recalling her time singing this song on the show.
On a personal note, I actually got to sing her part in this same arrangement of "Brotherhood..." for a concert on the main theater space adjacent to the Samueli Theater back in 2012, so to hear her sing the song live merely a few feet in front of me was a real treat and a sort of full-circle out-of-body experience.
She then treated the audience to two well-known numbers from DREAMGIRLS, the title song and "I Am Changing" which had the audience in rapt awe. Again, Ms. White sounded incredible and performed the song in her divalicious best.
She then offered up the penultimate song of the concert, which she prefaced by saying that she-Ms. White-will be leaving the stage for this one song, so that this "special guest"-a bawdy, outspoken lady named Sonja-can step up on stage to sing an autobiographical anthem. This cheeky moment, of course, was for her to transform into the persona of the, um, experienced hooker she played in THE LIFE, the very role that earned her the Tony Award back in 1997.
Needless to say, her revisit of "The Oldest Profession" was arguably the evening's signature highlight, in a tour-de-force musical performance filled with over-the-top acting and superb vocals. Ms. White even pre-apologized for what her alter ego Sonja might say and do during her "takeover," so the whole "transformation" into the character was a delight from start to finish.
To end the show, she switches things up again and sang a sweet and touching "When You Wish Upon A Star" followed by a beautiful, triumphant encore with "Home" from the musical THE WIZ, a show Ms. White did as her first ever Equity show (she toured the show in a bus-and-truck production that lasted "for 14 months of split weeks and one-nighters"). Well, judging from her long career, her hard work, talent, and tenacity have certainly paid off. To no one's surprise, she was met with a resounding standing ovation.
In between songs, of course, Ms. White offered up surprisingly honest and candid confessionals of a very busy, very full life, which saw her through humble beginnings listening to 45's and doing living-room shows for family in Brooklyn to performing on several stages all around the world. Sprinkled amongst the stories are engaging overshares about working with amazing talents and also about numerous marriages she's had (one particularly memorable anecdote recalls her 6-month marriage that saw her making a move to San Francisco for a guy, a limo driver, only to find out he cheated on her frequently behind her back).
Overall, Ms. White's cabaret concert at Segerstrom Center was a joy-filled experience for fans as well as a wonderful surprise for those who've just met her for the first time. With incredible power vocals and a fiery, confident delivery, Ms. White's intimate, candlelit show felt like being invited to her private club and being treated to a spectacular one-night-only song and story show.
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Photos courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Lillias White's performances for Segerstrom Center for the Arts' 2019-2020 Cabaret Series continues through Saturday, January 25, 2020. The Series continues with Broadway Legends: An All-Star Tribute to Hal Prince (March 27, 2020) and Laura Benanti (April 23 -25, 2020). Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am) located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.