Sound Advice Reviews
White & Whyte
The effervescent efforts of Lillias White pay off and are well suited to songs that embrace and encourage happiness. Cabaret and musical theatre audiences consuming live and recorded work have gotten to know her big personality and big voice from cast albums and stage roles. In 1980's Barnum, this Ms. White made her Broadway debut as a replacement in a role created, coincidentally, by another Ms. White (Terri), and in the next decade came her performance in The Life. Both shows had the music of Cy Coleman, and she includes an upbeat winner from his Seesaw score on her eclectic release. And Coleman melodies make up a full menu for the ever-engaging, classy veteran Ronny Whyte's survey of his oeuvre, featuring some tracks with a big band led by the coincidentally named pianist Cecilia Coleman. It's reviewed here belatedly, prompted by the revival of the project with an encore live performance this week at New York City's Birdland venue.
Full of mirth and melisma, served with a side dish of sass, Lillias White's buoyant singing could conceivably cure a case of curmudgeonliness. Determined and disarming, cavorting and cajoling, dwelling in and spreading joy dominate her chosen repertoire ("You've Made Me So Very Happy" and four other numbers with that "H" word are among Get Yourself Some Happy!'s tracks). She is certainly the jolly role model, practicing what she preaches, sounding like she's bursting with glee. And, oh, how persuasive she is in praising the view seen through her rose-colored eyeglasses and eying the metaphorical glasses half full for "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Are the Positive," a movie song from Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. Another Arlen melody, "Get Happy" (lyric by Ted Koehler, their first collaboration), is the oldest of several samplings of the Great White Way's scores, including blithe advice from two shows that premiered there in 1960 (Bye Bye Birdie's "Put On a Happy Face" and Do Re Mi's "Make Someone Happy"), Cy Coleman and Dorothy Field's "It's Not Where You Start" from Seesaw, and Kander and Ebb's encouragement to say "Yes" to life as touted in their senior citizen-filled 70, Girls, 70 (the age this young-sounding diva turned this summer).
Sultry and stylized in her singing, occasionally channeling a little bluesy vibe of Dinah Washington (whom she's played) or suggesting an Etta James-adjacent persona, punctuated with occasional little yelps and "ooohs," and taking some liberties in bending notes and ornamentation, the songstress can stress brassiness, coyly coo, or sashay her way through her merry material. The small band's fervent and smoking arrangements are credited to the late Timothy Graphenreed (her longtime collaborator, who was on piano), Benjamin Lerner, and Joshua Sherman, the recording's producer. Tempi and treatments are often refreshingly original, and the investment and vim of the vocalist, with her personalized phrasing, prevent the big dose of bubbly spirits from sounding simplistic. Should someone less feisty and more bland attempt such a pep rally, it might get quite trite. Lillias White goes to her happy place and invites us in. It's easy to convince an addressed wide-eyed child or a wooden puppet named Pinocchio, with sawdust for brains, that "When You Wish Upon a Star" it's a given that "your dreams come true," but even skeptical adults might be swayed to believe it when energized and enabling Lillias White turns on simmering sincerity.
Get Yourself Some Happy! is the entertainer's first solo studio recording; there was a live set released many moons ago that documented one of her New York City cabaret appearances. Before and after rafter-raising nightclub gigs like that one, the Tony Award winner (for her role in The Life), has brought lots of life and lush, lusty singing to theatre roles and other endeavors. "Irrepressible" can be the operative word when she's left to her own devices and instincts, but she's not truly over the top here, despite some self-indulgent moments in the pursuit of bonhomie.
Some of the pop choices may intrinsically be less "meaty" or artful, but a couple of them surprise with their involving impact. Goofy but fun in innocent nostalgia is a retro-fit reboot of "The Twist," about the rock-and-roll dance craze of yore, getting an afterlife via sheer will and spunk to spare. And who would guess that slow-walking The Turtles' fluffy and chipper ode to romantically being so darn "Happy Together" would reveal more deeply felt emotions instead of being just a piece of stale bubblegum? The 1967 ditty does show its datedness, of course, with its "telephone" line that considers the action, "If I should call you up, invest a dime ..." (Remember when using a pay phone only cost a dime? Remember pay phones being ubiquitous? Things change, although "dime" still doesn't actually rhyme any time with words coming up in the lyric tasked with trying: "mind" and "fine.")
The performer (currently back on Broadway as Mama Morton in the just re-opened Chicago) and her 14-track tribute to cheering up avoid anything weighty and anthemic that might have a whiff of "inspirational" or cathartic agendas to cure the blues. It's simply a sprinkling of sunshine that might rub off. Available digitally and as a CD now, the songs will also be released as a vinyl record before the holidays; perhaps the gift of grin-inducing songs is the proper prescription for someone to try after a trying year. And if that also sounds like you, you might get yourself Get Yourself Some Happy! and be happy that you did.
Suave, sophisticated and savvy. Elegant but emotional. Jazz-informed. These adjectives fit so much of composer Cy Coleman's music and also describe Ronny Whyte's performing style as singer and pianist. They are indeed kindred spirits and so it seems a bit surprising that the warm Whyte Witchcraft: The Songs of Cy Coleman isn't a recording project that came along long ago. But better late than never for this satisfying match at this point in the decades-long career of the performer. (Also "tardy" is this write-up; Whyte Witchcraft: Songs of Cy Coleman was initially released last year, but a review copy didn't come my way until a new publicity effort began recently to announce the September 16 performance of the material as part of the return of live performances at Birdland, New York City's famed theatre district venue.)
While a few numbers present the intimacy of Mr. Whyte's own elegantly understated jazz piano playing with the addition of Boots Maleson (bass) and David Silliman (drums), other tracks present either accompaniment by Eddie Monteiro (accordion and distinctive vocalese contributions) with drummer Tony Tedesco, while still others have the prominent presence of pianist Cecilia Coleman's Big Band. ("Note To Self about that surname and likelihood of family tree connection: No. Remember that Cy Coleman's actual family name was Kaufman.") It's a fine feast of instrumentation that reinvigorates long-familiar numbers from the mid-20th century, with some rarer treats such as "Too Good to Talk About" and "All Right, I Love You." These and ten others have words by Carolyn Leigh, with four other other lyricist partners represented with one song each, plus the rare instance of Coleman providing his own words (for the insightful piece "Sometimes When You're Lonely," which has been previously recorded in the impressive and eclectic Whyte discography).
Vulnerability and an open heart free of jaded second-guessing are on display with the delicate "I'm in Love Again," a collaboration with Peggy Lee, while many others present a more knowing, self-protective stance that comes from suffering some disappointments and hard knocks. The treatment of "Why Try to Change Me Now" (Coleman/ Joseph A. McCarthy) captures the mix of self-deprecation and self-acceptance. Elsewhere, he can be robust and ebullient. Trusting the material, Ronny Whyte never comes on too strong, never oversells, adds no trail of tear stains to the sheet music.
Only two things from Coleman's Broadway career show up, both from Little Me with Leigh's words: the ever-slinky "I've Got Your Number" and, from the revival, the assertive request with carpe diem sensibilities called "Don't Ask a Lady." Songs feel decidedly "lived in": confidently and caringly unspooled, the lighthearted ones relished and the sad and wistful ones presented as sober life lessons with perspective. As so presented, we appreciate the melodies fondly stated, mated to well-crafted lyrics.
Ronny Whyte is the epitome of a class act, the solid pro who shines in any setting and becomes the song as if under a magic spell. Now that's my kind of "Witchcraft."