One can hardly expect a one-time, mid-week, midsummer night's gig to be an instant frontrunner for New York's best cabaret act of the year, but that's what we got at 54 Below. Terri White took the stage with her booming baritone and conquered the audience with a string of songs that started out strong and seemed to get better and better.
White — best known for her scene-stealing appearances in the recent revivals of Finian's Rainbow and Follies — doesn't just sing the songs; she connects with the audience. A flick of the fingers, a wave of the wrist, a widening of the eyes; every little movement adds to the overall singing/acting picture, with emphasis on comic delivery. Imagine a mix of Pearl Bailey with Elaine Stritch, and you'll get the idea.
She sings especially well, with a voice that's hickory-smoked, and is startlingly good when she gets around to the blues. She also has the ability to start a note down low and swoop up two octaves on the same word. But White knows that it is far more effective to do so sparingly. Likewise, she descends into expert scat, but only briefly.
White has an intriguing back story. After starting out with the family hoofing act, she first attracted notice as the octogenarian Joice Heth in the original 1980 production of Barnum. Other Broadway jobs followed, including a stretch as understudy to Nell Carter in the 1988 revival of Ain't Misbehavin'. (White jokes that she went on 112 times for the perennially indisposed Carter.) She was encouraged to perform in the style of the star, which leads to one of the numerous high spots in the act: a highly-mannered and thoroughly incomprehensible Nell singing "Mean to Me."
A rough career-and-personal patch left the singer homeless at sixty. Discovered one midnight on a park bench by a NYPD cop who remembered her appearances at a Greenwich Village piano bar, she was rescued, rehabilitated, and ripping the roof off City Center (and later the St. James) with "Necessity" in the 2009 Encores! production of Finian's Rainbow. This was followed by the 2011 revival of Follies, in which White played Stella Deems (leading the song and tap number "Who's That Woman?"). White's long-ago experience in village clubs — including 88's, Rose's Turn, and The Duplex — is apparent at 54 Below. She clearly commands the stage, starting and ending with Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse's "Sweet Beginning" and "Who Can I Turn To?" Among the peaks are an all-too-knowing "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" and a positively soaring "God Bless the Child."
To her wife Donna Barnett, sitting appreciatively and protectively in the first row, she dedicates "You Are Too Beautiful" and "More Than You Know." (We haven't heard the latter, by Vincent Youmans, sung so well in years.) But the act is a succession of songs that White makes sound like they were written for her, including "I Am Changing" (from Dreamgirls), "Home" (from The Wiz) and "When You're Good to Mama" (from Chicago). She is well-supported by Ricky Ritzel on piano and Ivan Bodley on bass. The latter melds especially well with White when they do a bravura, piano-less "Route 66."
White is unlikely to win any "Best" awards for last night's set, if only because few of the people who vote for such things appeared to be present. But 54 Below seems to use these one-night stands as auditions, inviting back performers who do well. White didn't do well; the audience was rapt from start to finish, with several ovations along the way.
Hopefully she will be back in town for a week's stint, and soon. Terri White is, circa today, not to be missed.