Lari White
(© Michael Portantiere)
Lari White
(© Michael Portantiere)
If the director Bartlett Sher is in town and if he hasn't decided on his Nellie Forbush for the upcoming Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific, may I humbly suggest that he hotfoot it over to the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room, where Grammy Award winner and (briefly) Broadway star Lari White is making a most auspicious cabaret debut in a show cheekily entitled My First Affair, which runs only through March 3.

Mind you, the thought has occurred to me before that this Southern-bred, Nashville-based, country-and-gospel singer has the ideal mix of down-home charm and a killer set of pipes to be a great Nurse Nellie. And ironically, it wasn't her joyous rendition of one of Nellie's signature songs, "A Cockeyed Optimist," late in her set that even clinched the deal for me. (By the way, she'll be singing it as part of a six-song Marvin Hamlisch-arranged medley of Richard Rodgers tunes with the maestro and the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall next month.)

No, it was the sheer acting talent she displayed from the moment she entered the Oak Room, doing a highly exaggerated country bumpkin version of "Country Sunshine," that revealed thespian abilities we only glimpsed when White appeared in the ill-fated Ring of Fire. (Her skintight dress also revealed a dynamite figure you wouldn't remember from that show, either!)

White has a voice flexible enough -- and the impeccable vocal control -- to sing just about anything, and her show encompasses perhaps a bit too many styles. Still, what becomes crystallized during this act is her ability to fully inhabit a character while singing the hell out of a song. It may not surprise you how perfectly she tackles "Doatsy Mae," the lament of the not-so-simple waitress from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, but you will be dazzled by the depth she brings to "A Terrific Band and a Real Nice Crowd," the opening number from the 1978 musical Ballroom, and the flair which she imparts to "It Ain't My Business," a sassy number from the yet-to-be-produced musical Storyville by Lisa DeSpain and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.

Moreover, I dare anyone not to be completely knocked out by the medley of "Where Is It Written" and "A Piece of Sky" from Yentl. (That film and Ballroom both have lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman.) While White jokes that she's giving us "the Baptist shiksa Yentl," she also confesses how much her own religious, patriarchal background makes her relate to the young Jewish woman's parallel struggles to find a new identity.

White's years of performing in the even more intimate confines of Nashville's famed Bluebird Cafe has made her completely comfortable in the Algonquin's sometimes tricky room. Plus, she seems (with the help of director Eric Michael Gillett) to have mastered the tricks of the cabaret trade, from jumping up on the piano to sing -- in this case, Johnny Cash's "All Over Again," her big number from Ring of Fire -- to interacting directly with the audience, which included her new pal, Michael Feinstein, on opening night.

She's also made a couple of the slight and forgivable mistakes that many cabaret artists do. For example: selecting songs that have been done definitively, such as "Love Me or Leave Me" and "It's A New World," and thinking that a new arrangement will render them fresh. That strategy works very rarely, and not in this case, despite the efforts of White and her talented musical director Don Rebic. The two numbers White penned herself, a comic ode to marriage called "Minor Changes" and the torchy "Over and Over," are perfectly good tunes, but they do pale beside some of the standards that surround them.

But if one's first affair was perfect, you'd probably never have a second. So let's be thankful. It would be a great shame if My First Affair was Lari White's last one in cabaret.