Terri White says farewell with special Kennedy Center concert (review)

You might not expect a highlight of a cabaret concert to include the singer passing off her mic to the piano player, revealing a row of variously filled Makers Mark bottles, pulling out a pair of spoons, and accompanying a version of “Under the Sea” with a calypso-sounding percussion turn. But that happened Friday night in Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater.

You wouldn’t expect to watch a magnificent concert performed by a wonderful singer who seemed thoroughly in her element and fully in her prime to end with her announcement that you were witnessing her swan song. But that happened Friday night during the latest offering in the Barbara Cook Spotlight series.

Terri White gives her final performance at The Kennedy Center (Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center)

Terri White gives her final performance at The Kennedy Center (Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center)

Terri White gave her audience a night to remember with a program that included so many peaks that I lost count of the number of times I wrote “highlight” on my notepad. Her revelation that the concert would be her last left an otherwise fully satisfied audience disappointed to learn that her live-performance career was over, but grateful to have been part of a very special farewell appearance.

White follows in the footsteps of the living legend who is the artistic inspiration for the series. She inhabits the lyrics of a song so completely that you hear familiar lines as if for the first time.

Her voice is beautiful, versatile, powerful, and true. It would allow her to belt with the best of them, but she constantly surprises you with how she employs it. She avoids the current trend to always end big, with the result that each song packs greater power than if every finish was forced. She even ended one song off-mic.

When White was in town doing Follies at the Kennedy Center a few years ago, the story of her triumph over adversity received a certain amount of media attention. She didn’t make overt reference to that, but she did to other aspects of her life.

There is always a fine line, for an artist and for an audience, when popular culture engages horrific contemporary events. While art can provide a cathartic release for feelings, it can, if not careful, feel exploitative and diminishing, self-congratulatory and manipulative.

White’s personal connection to first-responders lost on 9/11 inspired a wonderful version of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” It’s a song that she says was adopted by survivor first-responders as “their song.” Her version began bluesy and poignantly, and then picked up in a gospel-tinged manner that was affirmative without feeling false or schmaltzy.

Not only a spectacular singer, she is also a wonderful actress. During a couple of the numbers, a character was inhabited so thoroughly that it seemed as if her very stature had changed. She did her Butler role from The Club. (She was in the original 1976 cast of that show, Tommy Tune’s first directorial gig.) A medley of her Broadway roles also demonstrated her gift for characterization.

The Broadway medley included songs from her roles not only in Follies (“Mirror, Mirror”) but also in Chicago (“When You’re Good to Mama”). (Interestingly, both of those parts were done on Broadway originally by Mary McCarty). Each was fresh, as was her “Being Alive” from Company, a version which ranks with Larry Kert’s on the live album Sondheim: A Musical Tribute as the most indelible I’ve heard.

Her between-song patter was charming, and (as is usual on these occasions) sprinkled with famous names: “Cy [Coleman] wrote this for me,” before a song from an ill-fated show called Welcome to the Club; “Fuck, she’s here,” when Liza Minnelli’s unmistakable cackle reveals that an oft-proffered invitation to her friend (White supported Liza in Stepping Out at Radio City) had finally been accepted.

“Being an understudy sucks,” she said, recalling her stint covering Nell Carter in Aint Misbehavin. As a tribute, mixed with a small dose of revenge, she did an imitation of Carter on that show’s “Mean to Me” before giving us her own account of the song.

The set proper gave us our money’s worth. (I know that sounds hollow, as I saw it on a press comp, but, have you paid for Kennedy Center parking recently?) But the mood changed perceptively after she came back for the encore and made her announcement to a stunned crowd. “Did you know that?,” someone behind me gasped to her companion after the revelation. (Before the show, I saw an acquaintance who is a regular at the series and who told me that White’s appearances are always the best, so those in attendance and familiar with White were primed for a memorable night.)

White began her encore with the vows that she sang at her wedding (beginning with “You Are So Beautiful To Me”). She spoke movingly about how unexpected her life now is. She is part of a family, married to a woman, something that couldn’t have been contemplated when she began her career. She feels, she told us, “reborn.”

In the audience were friends from her 18 years at Rose’s Turn, a Manhattan piano bar, whose closing she mourned. “Goodbye, Piano Bars,” she bemoaned. (Venues for this sort of cabaret performance are closing with depressing frequency.) The backdrop of the NYC skyline underscored that city’s centrality to her career.

To demonstrate her connection to our city, she also showed a medallion she had received in 1972 during a Kennedy Center run of The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd. Her appreciation of the Center, our city, and its audiences was heartfelt.

The encore included a swinging version of “Summertime” that provided a spotlight for her two-man combo. Bobby Peaco, Musical Director as well as Pianist, had duetted with her earlier, in addition to singing lead during the two numbers during which White moved to rhythm section duties. (Quibblers might call the second of those numbers, involving mixing shakers, a bit of overkill; but it made for a unique rendition of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”) “Summertime” gave Peaco the chance for a terrific solo, and Ivan “Funkboy” Bodley (yes, that’s how he is billed) followed with a turn on bass. The pair provided a strong sound that never felt thin or compromised because there were only two of them.

A review is supposed to tell a reader whether or not to go and see something, or, if the run is over, to provide a record of the event. Sadly, my enthusiasm for this show can’t inspire you to see Terri White in the future. However, she has put out CDs which were on sale in the lobby. Better than nothing. And maybe this can be encouragement to make sure you don’t miss the rest of the series. (There were empty seats on Friday.)

After a three-number encore, the house lights came up, but the audience didn’t leave. White came back and treated us to a final song. Then, the lights came up once again and we reluctantly filed out.

No one wanted it to end.

———————-

Barbara Cooks Spotlight: Terri White, with Bobby Peaco, Musical Director/Piano, and Ivan “Funkboy” Bodley, Bass.

Christopher Henley’s tribute is the only record we have of Terri White’s farewell concert. But here she is in concert, August 13, 2013.

Christopher Henley About Christopher Henley

Christopher Henley began acting (1979) and directing (1980) around DC with Source Theatre Company. He was a founding Ensemble Member at WSC Avant Bard (formerly Washington Shakespeare Company); was its Artistic Director for more than 16 years; and continues as its Artistic Director Emeritus and as a member of the Acting Company. Other theatres at which he has worked include SCENA Theatre (founding company member), Longacre Lea Productions, Folger Theatre, The American Century Theater, Quotidian Theatre Company, and Ambassador Theatre, in addition to several companies no longer functioning, such as Cherry Red Productions, Spheres Theatre Company, and Moving Target Theatre.

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