Julian Eaves reviews Lillias White and Seth Rudetsky in the latest offering from the Seth Concert Series online.
The Seth Concert Series with Lillias White
16 November 2020
Seth Concert Series Website
A fresh, opening vamp lured us into a splendidly chilled and laid-back ‘On The Other Side Of The Tracks’ (Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh), a real charmer from ‘Little Me’. Using carefully concealed art, Lillias spun out this throw-away number into a big, broad, bracing exploration of life and its more challenging perspectives. There is more than a little of the honey of Sarah Vaughan’s voice in her rendition of this, including a scatty little train whistle imitation to send the song on its way. A great calling card, to announce: top-class musical song performer in the house!
So, then we get into her narrative and discover: this is another story about someone who started small and humble and how they then turned into somebody amazingly big… and humble. It’s nice, family-oriented stuff! I love it. Well, Lillias tells all the home-spun tales we expect to get from small-town American, forever lost in its own back county obscurity. Out of which, of course, patrons, as like the morning lily o’er the surface of the shining lake, there was suddenly heard… THE VOICE!
In a vamp of another kind, we surged into, ‘You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman’ (Carole King/Gerry Goffin/Jerry Wexler), in which Seth furnished terrific harmonies, in his best, back-room-of-the-old-bourbon-and-rye-bar stand-up joanna! This was a story that really knew where to go, and when to pitch up there. This is a story for everyone, that just happens to be told by a great singing performer. From whose vocalising, the strains of the gospel choir, the Sunday church meeting, do not sound all so very far removed.
‘Tin Types’ was her touring show when the call came from Broadway: ‘Barnum’ (Michael Stewart/Cy Coleman (again!)) was the show, and the audition was held right there on the stage of the Broadway theatre, in front of an empty auditorium. She aced it. And aced the show, too, about which Lillias still speaks as if it were all happening only yesterday. The depth of the ‘feeling’ for the theatre experienced by those who dedicate their lives to it is really something quite astonishing, especially to someone who has never quite felt that kind of ‘demon’ creep into the well-ordered, sensibly managed lives they lead. She tells a great story here about working with the young Madonna… who left a Broadway show to go and work on a record. Turns out to have been a fairly smart move for the diva.
Then, swinging into honky-tonk ragtime: ‘Thank God I’m Old!’ was the brilliant, flashy tune we got from the three-ring spectacular, one of those toe-tapping Coleman tunes that, once heard, never seems to leave you. After this, a brisk recap of White’s CV, taking in James Baldwin’s ‘The Amen Corner’, among many other things, but it was the Baldwin that catapulted her into ‘The Wiz’ being revived in a bus-and-truck tour, covering Dorothy, until the incumbent decided she had had enough and moved on, making way for White’s promotion. The agent made it happen, in the end, of course. If it weren’t for all those unhead, unsung people who push doors open just a little more every day, every week, every year, then where we be when we go looking for ‘progress’?
And then, twinkling into our ears, a majestic turn on a fabulous Charlie Smalls number from his incredible Diana Ross vehicle, ‘Home’, raking in a performance that just knew perfectly how to pace the narrative of the tune and where to place the support and the fireworks (they all come in the last note!). But the really agreeable side to this is, I think, the roomy, relaxed, rambling conversation between Rudetsky and his always-disarmed and ready-to-talk guest. Again, it’s been said before, and I’ll say it again, but this does work best with old chums of the musical director. And does anyone suggest having old pals is a crime? Of course, not!
What could be nicer, then, than to hear Fats Waller and Andy Razaf’s ‘Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now’, doubtless hauled all the way – alive and very kicking – from ‘Ain’t Misbehavin”, a revue that has enjoyed a remarkable rediscovery in the UK of late. Oh, and yes, she – as a ‘standby’ understudy – gets a review for her work doing matinees in ‘Dreamgirls’ (which is so rare, naturally), and those reviews – sizzling hot – were instantaneously all over the theatre. Whence we smoothly moved into a rattling once-through of ‘I Am Changing’ (Henry Krieger/Tom Eyen), a diva’s diva doing her divaest, especially in the free-wheeling vocalise and improvisations: soulful and flawlessly matched to the song’s drama. Curtain!!!!
She has also sucked into ‘Once On This Island’ (Ahrens/Flaherty), and gave us, ‘Lost In Boston’s cut song from that show, ‘Come Down From The Tree’. A charming attempt at a song that remains, like so much of that show, not quite inhabiting the kind of world that audiences want to spend time in. A livelier story to tell was in the next samba-rumba-number, Anita Baker’s ‘Fairy Tales’; like many if not all things sung by Lillias, transformed into a pulsing thing of force and power, making it sound like the kind of song you’d want to hear and know forever. But instead, we got taken into Cy Coleman and Ira Gasman’s ‘The Life’, and the life as lived by Sonya: ‘The Oldest Profession’, what might be called the show’s 9 o’clock 11 o’clock number. (Loucheness is very much the note being struck, empathetically and enthrallingly here, in the vaguely ‘adult’ themed bookstore of a musical that ‘The Life’ is.) And Seth even managed to mooch right in and pull it back to where it should be going. And Lillias White dazzled with another amazingly protean and volatile incarnation. Sock-blowing-off-ness personified!