BY DAVID NOH | Lillias White, that powerhouse of Broadway theater, has a thrilling project afoot, “Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues,” opening at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor on August 2. She plays Maybelle Smith (1924-72), the legendary blues singer who recorded “96 Tears,” “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show,” and the Grammy Hall of Fame inducted “Candy.” White admitted this was a different kind of sound for her.
Lillias White stars in “Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues” at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor on August 2. | Giovanni Aponte
“It’s hardcore blues,” she said. “Her voice was not those melodic, high, beautiful Lena/Sarah tones, but a gritty gutbucket sound and I have been going to my voice teacher, Susan Eichhorn, to get some coaching into how to make it work in my voice and not ruin it. It’s a challenge that I’m willing to deal with.”
Raised in New York City, White always sang. What she really wanted to do was dance, but everyone round her focused on her voice.
I just love what I do, performing and moving an audience,” she said. “I’ve been blessed. God has given me a gift and I’ve been lucky to express it in different formats and shows. I look back in wonder at how I was able to do this, raise kids, travel and all that, but I love it, with always new discoveries to be made.”
Cy Coleman, the composer and jazz pianist, called White a force of nature after meeting her during the show “Barnum” (1980). He wrote her Tony Award-winning role in “The Life.”
“We connected immediately,” White said. “I had been singing his songs for years but didn’t know who he was. When I met him and connected the dots, he was this sunshine-y face with a big smile and these little, funny-looking hands (for a piano player) with fingernails that reminded me of my grandmother’s: like seashells that fanned out from the bed of the fingernail.”
Winning the Tony was “surreal. My mother and children were there, and my then boyfriend. It made me feel like I really belonged in the theater, a really great brava!”
White recorded “Rescue Me” for Madonna’s “Immaculate Conception” album (1990).
“She was lovely to me and Catherine Russell, and at one point the producer asked if she wanted to join us singing background,” White said. “She said, ‘No, they’ve got it.’ She was originally scheduled to be in my show ‘Rock and Roll – the First 500 Years’ (1982), which was ahead of its time and closed after only nine performances, which broke my heart. Madonna was hired to do Janis Joplin, I think, but dropped out at the last minute for her recording contract. Everybody was like, ‘Oh, she doesn’t want to do Broadway! She wants to be a recording artist — huh!’ But everybody has to find their niche and I’m happy for her and hope she’s happy.”
Paul Levine, the show’s writer/director said, “There’s been a wonderful magic around this experience. Lil and I love each other and we did this workshop, and wanted to continue. She was at [producer] Marty Richards’ birthday party, four months ago. He’s not terribly well and he said to her, ‘If there’s one more thing I can do before I go, it would be something with you. Do you have anything?’And she said, “As a matter of fact, I do.’ She put us in touch and he read it, heard the music and fell in love with it. He’s come in as a producer and, coincidentally, twenty years ago, was a founding member of Bay Street Theatre, as well. He kicked in what we call ‘enhancement money,’ but I would have paid him to be involved with this, as he is such an intelligent, master producer.”
Jenifer Lewis shook the foundations at 54 Below on July 24. | Eugene Gologutsky/Getty Images
Divas dominate the summer, as with Jenifer Lewis, who shook the foundations of 54 Below on July 24. In a fabulously smart and witty show by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, she was a hilarious and sharp raconteur who turned the air blue with more “Muthafuckas” and “Bitches” than I’ve ever heard in one evening. An incomparable sasstress, she has an expressive, soulful voice when delivering scrumptious material like her show’s title song, “Black Don’t Crack,” a rapid, raucous diva history of showbiz, “Sang Bitch,” and her menopause ode, “Hot Flash.”
She had ex-boss Bette Midler, sitting with husband and Nathan Lane, wiping away tears of mirth and emotion when she recalled having to step over the star’s inert body to perform “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” in concert. She gave Midler her due as the ultimate teacher when it came to expressing that pesky emotion, vulnerability, onstage, before launching into a heartfelt “Here’s to Life.”
The lambs that inspired dread in Clarice Starling. | Carol Rosegg
“Silence! the Musical!” made its second Off-Broadway transfer to Times Square’s new Elektra Theater on July 25. I knew I had to be there again if only for the tremendous belly laughs. The show has gotten better in the past year, faster and tighter, with every cast member performing at convulsing full throttle. Jen Harris’ hilarious Clarice Starling is perfectly contrasted with David Garrison’s gravely measured, spot-on Hannibal Lecter. They are sublimely supported by Stephen Bienskie’s creepily affecting Buffalo Bill, Annie Funke’s deliriously funny Catherine, “Queer as Folk’s” Randy Harrison as an amusingly fey Dr. Chilton, Topher Nuccio’s uproarious nerdiness, Callan Bergman’s marvelous dancing, Deidre Goodwin’s Sapphicly flavored FBI agent, and Harry Bouvy’s astonishing versatility in a passel of roles. There, I’ve mentioned the entire cast because they damned well deserve it, and I cannot wait to get the cast album and relive the sick, sick silliness of it all.
Contact David Noh at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out his new blog at nohway.wordpress.com.