Musical theater star Lillias White has been performing in cabaret for several years with mixed results. Her earlier shows at Arci's Place and Joe's Pub, while vocally impressive, suffered from her off-putting diva excesses. Of course, any diva by definition carries a certain amount of, let us say, additional personality; but White tended to cross the line from charismatic to obnoxious, her over-the-top patter undercutting her appeal. In her new show at Feinstein's at the Regency, From Schubert Alley to Jazz Alley, she thankfully keeps the talk to a minimum and lets her expansive personality shine in the best way possible: through her music.
Though the title of the show suggests that White is taking theater songs and putting a jazz spin on them, that kind of thing makes up only a small percentage of her program. She does provide a fresh take on "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" (Rodgers & Hammerstein), but the show is dominated by jazz standards like "Mood Indigo" (Ellington/Bigard/Mills) and "Well, You Needn't" (T. Monk). Regardless of genre, White comes at every song from the inside out, performing them all with such vocal ease (and vocalese) that they seem fully organic. This is true whether you like her interpretations or not. For instance, she sings "Love for Sale" (Cole Porter) as a sultry come-on rather than a bitter indictment of a life gone sour. While we prefer the latter take, White sings the lyrics of the song with total conviction and gives the melodic line a driving power. Speaking of sexy, her "Besame Mucho" is caliente; it starts as an ember and ends up as a five-alarm fire.
White doesn't waste any songs here. She opens with "Gentlemen Friend" (A. Horwitt/R. Levine) and performs it like an eleven o'clock number. Put another way, the show starts off like a racecar at the Indianapolis 500 and it only slows down for the curves--i.e., songs like the delicate "Skylark" (Carmichael/Mercer). Happily, White is conscious of playing to the entire audience, often turning fully to her right or left to sing to patrons on both sides of the stage. Adding to the excellence of the show is the high-powered band that backs her up: The piano work of James Williams is awe-inspiring and you'd be hard-pressed to find the equals of Grady Tate on drums, Phil Hamilton on guitar, and Ron Carter on bass.
Finally, it's worth noting that White's musical theater mentor, composer Cy Coleman, sat ringside on opening night. One of the pleasures of the evening was watching his face from number to number. Surprisingly, White didn't sing any of his songs, but his obvious joy at hearing her perform was a show in itself.