Lilias White at 54 Below
This weekend's headliner at 54 Below had barely begun her first number, a strong and funky tune called "Not Meant to Be in Love," when she paused to announce, "I'm so nervous!" Stopping the band, opening her arms wide to breathe in the crowd's energy, she collected herself and seemed to grow in both poise and stature, like a lion waking from sleep. It takes a lot of nerves to be Lillias White. Thankfully, no one has more than she.
White, who turns 63 on Monday (July 21), is a diva who has always been one step behind the celebrity she deserves. She was Jennifer Holiday's understudy in "Dreamgirls," which tells you all you need to know about her mammoth vocal range (nearly twenty years later, White preserved her Effie on the show's 2002 concert recording). For that, she's had a steady career whenever that particular sound has been called for, a pattern that has led to other Broadway replacement roles, countless concert recordings, the voice of the lead Muse in the Disney film "Hercules," and even backup for Madonna. But even when she finally earned her Tony Award, for her 1997 supporting role in "The Life," the show was not successful enough to make her a household name.
Whether White is envious of those with similar talent but bigger acclaim is anybody's guess, but she shows neither an ounce of exhaustion nor any slackening of muscle in her latest solo offering. With four backup singers and a three-piece band, White brought a very big concert onto 54 Below's very small stage. Nonetheless, she made the room more than usually intimate.
With a child's giddy playfulness, she teased waiters, called to old and new friends, and scorned those who might not be paying attention ("Can you hear me? Cuz I can hear you!"). In short, White's style is to draw her audience close, the better to blow them away.
The set list steered clear of Broadway, except for a couple numbers from unknown shows that she's been involved in. They fit seamlessly into the night's overall sound, which tended toward blues and funk, styles she commanded as though she were celebrating a homecoming. Though she brings an actor's emotional depth to her performances, White is also a sensuous singer, feeling her way into a melody as though it's a piece of hard candy. She'll move tenderly into her deep lower register, lingering a half-step longer than she needs to, before leaping up an octave to remind us how good it feels.
Her sexuality was put to especially good use in the show's first half, which collected a series of songs about men who've done her right or wrong. "A Husband Is," a tender paean to the joyful release of married love, was followed by "He Was Cool," a Cy Coleman number with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman from their little-known musical Like Jazz. The latter celebrates a charismatic but narcissistic man with an irresistible strut that White jokingly compared to Barack Obama's. Coming full circle was a vulnerable number called "Storm," which felt personal coming from White, as she sang of men who are frightened away by strong-willed women.
The woman-power medley "Ain't Nothin" and "Run Outta You" transitioned into the next half of the show, which de-emphasized storytelling to allow White and her fellow musicians to unleash their full musical power. The highlight was a medley of James Brown's "It's a Man's World" and Alicia Keys's "Fallin" that brought half the audience to its feet. White belted, scat, and trounced her way through Brown's famous tune, owning it as though it were her signature.
With the room appropriately ablaze, she turned ever-so-gently political with a musical setting of Nikki Giovanni's poem "Ego Trippin," a ballad of self-confidence rooted in black power and feminist courage that became part spoken word poetry and part anthem.
The evening concluded with a reminder to remember what's precious and to inhabit the moment as fully, so it was implied, as White herself had done for the last hour. Her final tunes "Remember Me" and "The Way He Makes Me Feel" returned her to more gentle musical territory. As she walked offstage with a bouquet of birthday roses, smiling like a child and leaving a lingering spell throughout the room, a lyric from her opening song-right around when she had paused to gather her strength-felt justified. "I'm not a witch," she had told us, "I just know what I want."
Lillias White played July 18 and 19 at 54 Below, 254 W. 54th St. For information and tickets on upcoming shows, call 646-476-3551 or visit http://54below.com