By: Patrick Christiano
A special live-performance by the sensational Tony Award Winning songstress/actress Lillias White is sure to bring down the house when she takes center stage at Bay Street Theatre’s biggest fundraiser of the year, the annual ROCK THE DOCK! SUMMER BASH on the Long Wharf in Sag Harbor which takes place on Saturday, July 21, 2012. The dynamic performer is returning to the Hamptons to star as the legendary blues singer Maybelle Smith in Bay Street’s upcoming World Premiere production of the musical BIG MAYBELLE: SOUL OF THE BLUES, written and directed by Paul Levine.
When I caught up with the mother of two grown children, who has four grandchildren and twin grandchildren (a boy & a girl) on the way, she was on the other line saying goodbye to what sounded like a good friend, and getting Maxie her 21 year old rat terrier out from underneath her feet. You are performing at the Bay Street Gala on Saturday? Yes, we are going to rock the dock…come prepared to have a good time. Will you be doing selections from the upcoming musical BIG MAYBELLE: SOUL OF THE BLUES? She demurred: “I’m not sure what we will be doing yet.” I know you have been to the Hamptons several times, and we even shared a table at a benefit once, but when was your first time? In the 1970s I came to Sag Harbor with the Demigods Theater Company for a college production. We stayed with Doctor Gilbert to do a film/videotape of a work. I don’t even know if she is still there. The area was so beautiful.
The Brooklyn born native has appeared in film and television, toured the world in leading musical roles and in concerts and is a fixture in the Broadway community winning a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical in 1997, She portrayed Sonja, a role written specifically for her by Cy Coleman for his musical The Life. She stopped the show nightly with her tour-de-force rendition of “The Oldest Profession,” a song in which Sonja bemoans the life of a prostitute. White originated the role Off-Broadway as well before the musical found success on the Great White Way, but prior to that the actress made her Broadway debut in Barnum in 1981, understudied Effie in the original 1981 production of Dreamgirls, and later played the part in the 1987 revival. More recently on Broadway she was nominated for a Tony Award for her haunting, but brief interpretation of Funmilayo, Fela’s mother in Bill T. Jones Tony Nominated hit musical Fela, which the actress also toured with to Africa. Off-Broadway she won an Obie Award for the public theater’s production of the William Finn’s musical Romance in Hard Times, while her regular role on the PBS TV show “Sesame Street” won her an Emmy Award. She has also starred in the Actors’ Fund of America’s benefit concerts of Dreamgirls, Funny Girl and Hair. Her U-tube performances from those shows are favorites amongst fans, who have never seen Lillias perform live.
Tell me about the new show Big Maybelle. Maybelle was a blues singer from the South, who recorded popular songs in the 1950s… a big woman with a big voice. The music is heartfelt like her life with lots of ups and downs. Her songs have an honesty of performance, purity. How did this new show happen? I met Paul (the writer and director) when I was doing Fela and we clicked. We have been work shopping the show for 2 years. I’m backed by Michael Mitchell on piano plus a five piece band. The role was created for you? No, I would say I am tailoring myself to the role. Sounds Exciting! You’ve accomplished so much as a performer, and I realize this is premature, but how would you like to be remembered, artistically? I think I would like to be remembered as an artist who made people feel good with a sense of reality and truth.
BIG MAYBELLE: SOUL OF THE BLUES runs on the Mainstage @ Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor Tuesday, August 7 through Sunday, September 2, for more information or tickets call 631-725-9500 or online at www.baystreet.org.