Barbara Cook’s Spotlight: Terri White’s Farewell Performance at The Kennedy Center

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The ebullient, sassy, brassy and joyously life-affirming Broadway and cabaret  star Terri White (resplendent in a stylish, sharply-edged purple pantsuit) launched into her ninety minute show at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater Friday night with her usual professionalism and engaging stage persona.

Terri White. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Terri White. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

The hyper-talented White (who sang, tap danced, played calypso rhythms on bottles and tumblers, and acted out every nuance of every song line with an actor’s masterly precision) cascaded through a beguiling and  well-chosen set of songs. I had felt instinctively that White was plumbing the depths of her lyrics even more instinctively than usual; often, she was in tears at the conclusion of certain songs. My instincts proved to be correct for this cabaret concert was to prove to be an emotional and historic capstone to White’s prolific artistic career. (this is to be revealed at the conclusion to this review).

I have followed White’s career closely and, indeed, what a multitude of roles she has had in such diverse fare as Barnum, The Club, Finian’s Rainbow, Stepping Out at Radio City with Liza Minnelli, the recent revival of Follies, and numerous cabaret awards. Alas, even I was not prepared for the sheer aplomb and gut-wrenching emotion that White invested in this concert. Like Emily Skinner and Edith Piaf, White imbued each song with precision, artistic sensitivity and skill. White broke through the fourth wall with transcendence and skill throughout the evening.

Opening with the rousing “Starting Here,” one could not help but feel that we were starting on a long journey with White. She then proceeded to capture the crowd’s heart with the comic and acerbic “If Money Talks” from Tommy Tune’s The Club. White tap danced with consummate skill during this number.

From Bubbling Brown Sugar White sang the sassy “It Don’t Mean a Thing” with a resonant tone. In this song, as well, there were very intricate tap interludes.

The concert was aided immeasurably by Musical Director Bobby Peaco who also provided superior Piano accompaniment. Peaco also possesses a fine singing voice and dueted beautifully with White on a couple numbers. Ivan “Funkboy” Bodley supplied superb Bass Back-up and, also, performed beautifully in some fine jazzy, swinging interludes.

White next jumped into an affirmative yet scorching and almost –defiant rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s now classic anthem “Being Alive.” She started slowly and, then, built to a thrilling crescendo as she sang the penultimate phrasing of that wonderful reiteration of life – “Being Alive.”

White then launched into a mellow and searching rendition of the classic “Old Devil Moon” – once again, her impeccable yet earthy phrasings made the song come alive.

An amusing and extremely clever cover of “Under the Sea” from Alan Menken’s The Little Mermaid was performed as an intricate and organic set piece with Ms. White, pianist Peaco and Bassist Bodley all performing with full calypso syncopation and rhythm. White, in sly comedic style, played percussion off of a stage bar loaded with several bottles of strong spirits! Highly innovative!

David Friscic and Terri White at The Kennedy Center on October 16, 2015.

David Friscic and Terri White at The Kennedy Center on October 16, 2015.

White captured the audience’s total attention with her narratives about living in New York during the horrors of 9/11 and its aftermath. She told of an officer she admired who was a victim as well as all the other people who had perished. She dedicated a very moving rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” to rapt attention and much applause. This song is sometimes over-performed but White gave the song her unique and distinctive musical touch and, thus, made it much more effective than usual.

White’s cover of the classic song “Everything Must Change” was, perhaps, the main highlight of many highlights. White’s voice is particularly suited to the middle and lower register and this song’s range brought out the best in White’s voice – namely, a more mellow and reflective mode of phrasing and tone.

White did a very satiric imitation of the famed television and Broadway star Nell Carter – just as Carter would have sung every line of her standard “Mean to Me” (from the hit Ain’t Misbehavin’).  In a way, it was a bit of a perilously close putdown of Carter’s precocious singing style yet White made it work with her “spot-on” comic timing and delivery.

From her acclaimed role in Sondheim’s Follies, White sang “Who’s That Woman?” with all the ambiguity yet stark self-realization that the song requires.

White then veered into a very frank rendition of “Nobody Knows You” and one could sense that White all too readily understood the hollowness of human nature towards the “haves” and “have-nots.” Her approach to this song was totally “in-the –moment” and searingly honest.

The emotion that White infused into every song until this point reached its interpersonal climax as White made a surprising and emotional announcement – namely, -“that this night was her last night of performing because of poor health.” As she made this sad announcement, I realized why so much feeling was invested in every song and I knew I was witnessing an historic moment in cabaret and Broadway history – Terri White’s final performance.

White then said how much it meant to her that she had married the woman she loves and how happy she was with her, and then. very appropriately, sang a moving rendition of “More Than You Know” with loving abandon.

A jazzy, jumping arrangement of the Gershwin standard “Summertime” changed the plaintive mood for a moment as Pianist Peaco and Bassist Bodley backed White with vigor and finesse.

An encore was demanded by the audience and White more than delivered with a masterly rendition of the increasingly-performed “soon–to-be-standard” –namely, “Here’s To Life.” White’s voice was perfectly suited to the range of this song and she sang it with such feeling and nuance that I felt as if my heart was breaking. White raised her glass and toasted the audience as she wistfully ended her song with the words – “Here’s To You.”

White came back for another much-deserved encore – “Teach Me Tonight” to sustained applause and several standing ovations.

I was, indeed, proud to be witnessing an emotional and historic theatrical moment by being a part of the last performance of the multi-talented and disarmingly honest performer – Ms. Terri White. It’s a night I will never forget!

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Terri White appeared as part of Barbara Cook’s Spotlight series at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on October 16, 2015. Tickets are available for future Spotlight shows at the Kennedy Center box office or by calling Instant Charge at (202) 467-4600.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1552.gif

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