At MetroStage, a 'Pearl' With Charming Luster

By Nelson Pressley
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Good singer, great talker: That’s how Roz White plays Pearl Bailey in the highly personable tribute cabaret “Pearl Bailey … by Request.”

"Don't work too hard, honey," White's Bailey deadpans to a co-star midway through a characteristically winsome rendition of "Ain't She Sweet." "It's not a whole lot of money."

White soft-pedals it herself, gracefully mimicking Bailey's trademark low, mellow tones while dropping wisecracks between the lyrics. The patter is nearly nonstop, with White-as-Bailey punning and joking about everything from love to footwear. (Her fancy heels are too tight: "These are just my one-hour shoes," White explains as she kicks them off for a spell.)

This sort of laid-back bio-cabaret has become the house specialty at MetroStage, and White -- who conceived of the show and wrote the slim book with Thomas W. Jones II -- keeps Bailey's professional face front and center. The black entertainer's life and times are skimmed, not explored, so comments about her marriage to white drummer Louis Bellson or winning the Medal of Freedom feel like tossed-off facts.

Luckily, this drive-by info (70 minutes, directed with warm efficiency by Shirley Basfield Dunlap) comes with a nice songbook. White draws extensively from Bailey's "16 Most Requested Songs" album, including earnest versions of the Bailey signature ballads "Tired" and "Here You Come With Love." The four-piece band onstage swings lightly (drummer Greg Holloway uses brushes more often than sticks), and while the musicianship is generally fine, White's Bailey is more vibrant whenever she partners with more than just a tune.

Enter William Hubbard, who joins White for happy re-creations of Bailey's duets with bandleader Hot Lips Page. Hubbard and White nail the playful banter while maneuvering stylishly through the light choreography in "The Hucklebuck" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

At another point, White conscripts an audience member to join her for "Takes Two to Tango," landing laughs with her running commentary as they sashay together. White works Bailey's terrain well, and the old-school showbiz hospitality is hard to resist.

Pearl Bailey ... by Request, concept by Roz White, book by White and Thomas W. Jones II. Directed by Shirley Basfield Dunlap. Music director, Marvin Ford; lights, Jessica Lee Winfield. About 70 minutes. Through Nov. 9 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Call 800-494-8497 or visit http://www.metrostage.org.