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Lillias White Sings Broadway – An Evening with Billy Stritch

I can no longer count the number of times I have sat in The Crazy Coqs and heard the headline performer say that it was a challenge to squeeze everything they wanted to fit into their concert.

Lillias White
Lillias White

Lillias White and her musical director Billy Stritch have come up with a way around this perennial problem, by presenting three distinct but broadly similar shows. Stritch, who had one of the three shows (almost) all to himself, is still perhaps best known as being Liza Minnelli’s musical director for many years. In lockdown, like other performers and musicians, he became acquainted with the concept of online concerts and streaming. Returning to in-person concerts does not mean an end to streaming for Stritch, and there were people able to join from wherever they were in the world, substantially adding to the in-person capacity crowd.

White has never done her own show before, and for a London cabaret debut, if I can call it that, it wasn’t bad. Granted, it could have done with some tightening, and as Stritch pointed out while White was repositioning her on-stage drinks table, a little more rehearsal time wouldn’t have gone amiss. But one lives and learns, and White wasn’t the only one in the room who was surprised by how long it takes to overcome jetlag when flying over to London from the United States. In other words, it wasn’t a perfect performance but hey, there were mitigating circumstances, and the banter more than compensated for the slight lack of polish.

‘An Evening with Billy Stritch’ at Crazy Coqs.
‘An Evening with Billy Stritch’ at Crazy Coqs.

Some decent engagement with the audience was good to see. I couldn’t help smiling as White began a conversation with a thirteen-year-old in the front row prior to singing ‘The Oldest Profession’ from The Life. Let’s just say the ‘oldest profession’ sung about wasn’t a builder, farmer or musician. Later, she started chatting up a man who later revealed he was really looking for a boyfriend. In her earlier years, White had dreams of being a dancer, but her mother steered her away from it – at the time, there weren’t any black ballerinas in training for a reason. It seems absurd now, of course, and it is rather harrowing that such overt racism is still well within living memory. White’s singing voice is marvellous. Some (or maybe all) of her riffs will displease purists, but her interpretation of some of the musical classics was delightful.

Stritch had only met his musical guest, Debbie Wileman, on opening night of White and Stritch’s London run, by which he meant they had Zoomed and YouTubed (and so on) previously but had not yet met in person. Wileman has, it turns out, sold out the Crazy Coqs herself earlier in 2022, and during the pandemic filmed herself performing a song a day, in a series called (ahem) ‘A Song A Day’. Here, her impersonation of Judy Gardland was adored by the audience, and having seen a couple of Wileman’s many videos, I am pleased to report she has as fine a voice in person as online.

White and Stritch had saved their best for last, it seems, with the last of their three shows, Hoagy Carmichael & Friends, being the most enjoyable. “I bet you don’t know this one,” White beamed, before launching into something I had indeed had no recollection of hearing before. Hoagy Carmichael (1899-1981) composed several hundred tunes, and like many composers of previous generations, it is the very best ones that successive generations have the privilege of enjoying.

The third show felt more like what a cabaret performance really should be, with one song smoothly segueing into another, with some anecdotes, personal stories and trivia included in between. Such was the reach of Carmichael’s sphere of influence that the musical Ain’t Misbehavin’, a revue of music made popular by the jazz pianist and entertainer Fats Waller (1904-1943), included a collaboration between Carmichael and Frank Loesser (1910-1969), called ‘Two Sleepy People’. He had, of course, collaborated with Johnny Mercer (1909-1976) on ‘Lazybones’ (which wasn’t in this show) and ‘Skylark’ (which was). They don’t write tunes like these anymore, and these shows are a delightfully fresh take on popular songs from years ago.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Live at Zedel
20 Sherwood Street
London W1F 7ED

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