Review: Seth Rudetsky presents Tony Winner Lillias White at OC's Segerstrom Center

A fun talk show-meets-cabaret concert hybrid, Rudetsky and White offered a 3-night show filled with juicy backstage stories and divalicious vocals.

By: May. 31, 2024
Review: Seth Rudetsky presents Tony Winner Lillias White at OC's Segerstrom Center
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When the OC offered its little corner of the world a localized concert presentation entitled Seth Rudetsky'S BROADWAY WITH Lillias White, it doesn't seem to be a show one should miss, particularly if you're a deep-diving, So Cal musical theater fan that, like me, doesn't get a lot of opportunities to travel to the Great White Way to see these talents in their home turf.

Thank goodness for Segerstrom Center for the Arts' Cabaret Series, which imports in Broadway stars to our own backyard doing intimate, close-proximity shows that showcase their insanely good talents up-close without having to get a plane ticket, a hotel room, and astronomically high-priced theater seats.

To close out their 2023-2024 Series, Segerstrom Center recently welcomed the hilariously quippy theater aficionado Seth Rudetsky to serve as an interviewer-slash-pianist for Tony Award winner Lillias White in one of the most incredibly wonderful, fan-favoring concerts that the OC arts campus has ever hosted at the intimate, candlelit Samueli Theater in Costa Mesa.

Over the course of three consecutive nights from May 16-18, the pair of remarkable talents with big personalities presented a "fireside chat"-style show (complete with side-by-side armchairs) that felt very much like a couple of friends gabbing in a spotlit living room talking about career highlights, then performing an unplanned playlist filled with special requests songs spontaneously played on a grand piano that just happened to be sitting there.

That was certainly the beguiling, easy-going vibe emanating from Mr. Rudetsky and Ms. White's show, which Rudetsky promised right from the start was going to be made up as they went along—which meant that each of the shows will feature totally different songs every night that were wholly dependent on what mood struck them at the moment or what is brought up during their seemingly improvised chat.

The first night seemed to cover a lot of Ms. White's beginnings in the industry, so I can only assume that later shows during the run possibly featured later eras in her successful career.

While their fun, t-spilling, wickedly candid conversation did dominate the evening (on opening night, Ms. White did a total of nine songs plus an encore sandwiched in between the lengthy interviews), the resulting program was, without question, a blissful night of jaw-droppingly good vocals prefaced by a rapturous gab sesh that revealed just what a singular, unique artist Ms. White is.

"And…. her outfit is just phenomenal, too!" Rudetsky gushed as Ms. White took her opening night first bow.

Though it's probably presumptuous of me to say (but I'm likely correct) that most of the audience who subscribe and regularly attend these Cabaret Series shows are mostly made up of money-ed, older OC folks who go to these performances despite having absolutely no idea who these otherwise famous stars are, clearly there are also huge theater fans always in the audience, taking advantage of the fact that these bonafide Broadway stars are here singing their faces off mere feet away.

That seemed to be the case again here, judging from the loud, piercing cheers that echoed whenever Ms. White was prompted to talk about her extensive résumé, which have included significant roles in shows like BARNUM, THE WIZ, DREAMGIRLS, AIN'T MISBEHAVIN', ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, CATS, CHICAGO, CARRIE, FELA!, and, of course, her Tony-winning turn in Cy Coleman's THE LIFE. Most recently, she just finished her historic run in the role of Hermes (the first woman to do so) in the Broadway musical HADESTOWN.

On a personal note, Ms. White herself has had a huge direct impact on a much younger me when I was first introduced to her talents while watching her perform (and slayyyyed) on television on the Tony Awards in the role of Miss Jones in the 1995 revival of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING singing the song "Brotherhood of Man" with the cast. That amazing performance—which Rudetsky would later meticulously "deconstruct" in a YouTube video I have watched repeatedly over the years—has been living rent-free in my brain for years, and I became a fan ever since and have adored every star turn she has taken.

In a surreal, full-circle moment many, many years later in 2012, I had the opportunity to sing that very same arrangement from the musical—doing her role and attempting the same vocal riffs—for a choral concert that was staged right here at Segerstrom Center (which, apparently, I was told later, was gleefully watched by Liza Minnelli herself from the wings!) Thanks for the inspo, Ms. White!

But, to be fair, Rudetsky, too, is fairly well-known in the theater community in his own right, but with a decisively different path than Ms. White's.

Currently a deejay on SiriusXM's popular musical theater/Broadway channel, and the host of his own Broadway chat show Seth Speaks, this accomplished musician and theater-centric entrepreneur spent several years on Broadway as a pianist and conductor before joining the writers' room of the Emmy-winning Rosie O'Donnell Show.

I myself was introduced to him thanks to his viral YouTube presence doing those hilarious "breakdowns" on his Deconstructing Broadway series which he has also brought live to stages all over the world. Funny, nerdy, and musically-attuned, the affable guy certainly has the charm to convince huge Broadway stars to sing and belt on his shows for all to enjoy—from benefit concerts to Broadway-themed cruises (which he hosts with his husband James Wesley).

Several years ago, I also had the privilege of attending the first performance of the L.A. premiere of his own original musical comedy DISASTER! before it eventually went on to Broadway!

And if you're like me, you likely spent weekly virtual visits with Seth during the 2020 pandemic when he hosted the popular (and incredibly philanthropic) Stars in the House series which streamed fresh, live content to theater-starved fans worldwide with a weekly dose of chats and performances (and beyond) that raised a ton of money for some great causes.

The format of Rudetsky's OC cabaret show, then, clearly played to both of these stars' unique individual strengths. While Rudetsky tickled the ivories with expert ease in between his amusing, scintillating interview questions, Ms. White lobbed back candid, often unfiltered answers, then sang her face off with great power and emotion throughout the night—on songs that included Aretha Franklin's "Natural Woman" and Dinah Washington's "I Wanna Be Loved" intermingling with showtunes that marked specific career highlights in her storied musical theater journey.

On opening night, Rudetsky, sitting behind the piano, welcomed Ms. White who kicked things off with the rousing "On The Other Side of the Tracks," a song from the 1962 musical LITTLE ME written by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh.

Coleman was a name brought up several times during the evening, considering the late musical theater composer—who created SWEET CHARITY among other shows—has had a significant impact on her career on many occasions, starting with Ms. White's Broadway debut in his 1980 show BARNUM. Years later, Coleman would create a role especially for her in his 1990 show THE LIFE, which, of course, garnered her the Tony Award.

Though it's evident in hindsight that Ms. White definitely has a proven knack for performing musical theater, the genre wasn't exactly something she pursued outright from a young age when asked by Rudetsky, even though her own mother took her to see lots of theater shows in New York City and exposed her to many Broadway cast albums in their home in Brooklyn.

"I didn't really pursue theater. Theater pursued me," she answered, after Rudetsky asked her how she got into the business, considering it's so natural for her.

Ms. White's official first professional musical theater role was as a "fit" (her word) young woman on a bus-and-truck tour of the 1975 hit musical THE WIZ where she understudied the lead role of Dorothy, which she was blessed to take on several times when the named lead actress in the role bowed out a lot.

This recollection led right to an incredible version of the show's triumphant 11 o'clock number "Home," which Ms. White rendered beautifully, followed by the bawdy "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" by Fats Waller and Andy Rasaf, a song featured in the musical revue AIN'T MISBEHAVIN', another early-career musical that cast Ms. White as a standby.

She finally earned a Broadway principal role after auditioning for Coleman's circus-themed musical BARNUM, which she recounted with an amusing story about how she lied about being able to expertly juggle in order to secure the job. Despite flubbing her juggling spectacularly, she still impressed Coleman enough to get hired on the spot.

This story, naturally, segued into Ms. White's hilariously cantankerous rendition of her character Joice Heth's song in the show "Thank God, I'm Old" written by Coleman and Michael Stewart.

She followed this well-received song with references to two more musicals she performed on: ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, which had her revive "Come Down From The Tree," a cut song that didn't make it to the eventual Broadway production, and, yes, (yassss!) DREAMGIRLS, a musical, she admitted, had her resisting doing the showy role of Effie despite many of her friends and peers urging her to go after it.

"I grew up Catholic," Ms. White explained to Rudetsky. "I didn't know if I could sing that way. I didn't know if I had that in me."

As many would later discover, she, as predicted, indeed had it in her to play that role, which Rudetsky gladly witnessed first hand decades later when he worked with Ms. White on the Actor's Fund Benefit concert version of the Henry Krieger/Tom Even show back in 2001 with co-stars Audra McDonald and Heather Headley (a live concert recording I still obsess over to this very day).

She was, of course, speaking about the gospel-tinged, deep-in-the-guts ferocity that original Effie actress Jennifer Holliday made synonymous with the role, a kind of vocal affectation she didn't think she was capable of truly emulating.

Rather, if she had to pick a role to do in DREAMGIRLS, she would have initially picked Lorrell... "purely because of her dresses!" So cute.

Rudetsky, though, brought up the fact that Effie herself had her own magical sartorial moment in the show that Ms. White got to do in the show's second act during the wonderfully defiant "I Am Changing," which she revived for this OC audience again at Rudetsky's request. I have to say that I had literal chills the whole time watching her redo the song for us that night live.

Ms. White ended the evening with, no surprise, "The Oldest Profession," her big solo song in the musical THE LIFE which earned her the 1997 Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. She recalled that she has performed three times on the live Tony Awards broadcast  over the span of her career, and that she still finds it hilarious that her only Tony win (so far) has been for a role that had her playing a prostitute named Sonja back in the pre-Disney-fied New York City.

"It's pretty much cleaned up now. It's not the same" she sarcastically pointed out, which she sort of misses.

An entertaining show from start to finish, this season-closing cabaret show was definitely one of the best ones Segerstrom has hosted here—thanks mostly to Ms. White's incredible singing and Rudetsky's charming, Broadway-geek enthusiasm. Though the actual singing portions of the show was downsized to a mere 10-song selection, the entire program was jam-packed with memorable, enjoyable moments that definitely kept everyone's rapturous attention throughout, allowing this audience to witness just a smidgeon of Ms. White's notable, undeniable singing prowess that have awed many beyond the OC.

Her coos are seductive and deliberate, while her fiery defiance is powerful and anthemic. And her admitting that she doesn't even know how to sight-read music (just like me!) just added to her allure as a natural-born singing sensation.

Part of me, of course, wished I was able to attend all three shows that weekend considering how much spontaneity was involved in the show (apparently a special guest even did a duet with Ms. White on her final show). As I went home that opening night still basking in the afterglow, I became curious as to what stories and what song selections made it to the pair's final two shows of that weekend—and what an amazing experience it must have been for those in attendance.

Be that as it may, the opening night performance I witnessed was certainly a memorable one. What a treat it was to hear Ms. White sing live and speak her truth in person! And that voice—my gosh—if you weren't a fan before seeing her that night, you certainly became one fast.

So for now… the only logical recourse is to revisit those clips from that Actors Fund Benefit concert of DREAMGIRLS again to relive Ms. White's amazing talent!

Top photos courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

* Follow this reviewer on TwitterX / Instagram / Threads: @cre8iveMLQ *

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Tickets to next season's 2024-2025 Cabaret Series performances at Segerstrom Center for the Arts 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). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

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