Lillias White Gets a Resounding Yes! from a Spellbound Audience
There is some kind of alchemical magic in the greatest performers, and Lillias White at Mr. Finn’s Cabaret Monday night at Barrington Stage changed the temperature in the room, raised the spirits of an enthusiastic crowd, and transformed a tight serviceable space in Pittsfield into the swankiest, most sophisticated nightclub you’ve ever been in. With her powerful voice, insinuating charm, and indestructible positivity, she converted everyone in the room into singing the praises of Lillias.
The engagement was squeezed around her Broadway run as Hermes in “Hadestown,” in which she is the first woman to play the part. She rushed up to the Berkshires to open her set with a call and response with the audience asking us to say “Yes!” She launched into “Yes” from her album “Get Yourself Some Happy.” She followed that with a finger-popping, swinging “You’re My Best Friend,” minting a new classic reading of the Queen song.
She paid tribute to all those we’ve lost, phenomenal artists and friends and family alike in recent years with a soaring rendition of “It’s So Amazing to Be Loved” by Luther Vandross, the legendary singer that she obviously loves very much. After questioning the audience seated stage-side and finding couples who had been married 36, 45, and 52 years, she disarmingly confided that she is single after a marriage that lasted five years. Time for “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”
“Stairway to the Stars” featured an exquisite piano solo by her accompanist Mathis Picard which was only an appetizer for his veritable feast of virtuosity and delicacy on a song from the Alfred Newman score of the movie “Pinky,” the 1949 movie starring Jeanne Crain and Ethel Waters about a young Black woman who is so fair-skinned she passes for white. The mournful, beautiful meditation mesmerized the audience. It held them in rapt attention until its gentle conclusion, which received thunderous applause and some standing to thank the young man for his artistry.
There were sillier spells cast with Ms. White’s shimmering, sparkling dress, which could blind you as it reflected back a thousand points of light. It was a quintessential cabaret dress. Her easy humor and interplay with the audience never failed to evoke laughs, as when she commented, “I know we’re in Pittsfield, and you go to bed early up here.” Someone from the audience shouted, “We’ll stay up late for you.” “I’ve heard that before,” was her immediate response. She also had a massively fun “I Want a Big Fat Daddy” by Irene Reid, which found her using her very accomplished scatting to cover lyrics she acknowledged she had blown. Happy to say I was serenaded by this on the ride home.
Lillias White is working on a tribute album to Sarah Vaughn called “Divine Sass,” and what better title for Lillias White covering Sarah Vaughn could there be? However, her “Skylark” by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer was the highlight of the show to me and was propelled by a plangent yearning that pierced my heart. Previous to this, she had a bopping “It’s Crazy, But I’m in Love” by Nat King Cole, which bounded heedlessly forward and showed off her scatting to great effect.
Lastly, she told a great story about what lessons were instilled in her Brooklyn childhood and her great pride at being singled out by an old Jewish storekeeper to her grandmother in her thoroughly integrated neighborhood as being such a polite young girl. Her wish for the world was encapsulated by her closer, the Tim McGraw song “Humble and Kind.” “Don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t lie/I know you got mountains to climb but/Always stay humble and kind.” It was a surprising choice and all the more powerful and thought-provoking for it. Surely, it contributed to the overwhelming ovation Lilias White collected at its conclusion.