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Terri White sings show-tune classics with emotional force

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The bar is set pretty high for the Barbara Cook Spotlight Series at the Kennedy Center. Yet during an exhilarating 90 minutes Friday night in the Terrace Theater, Broadway veteran Terri White kicked it up a notch.

Working with pianist Bobby Peaco and bassist Ivan Bodley, White delivered the kind of performance that comes from decades of living by one’s showbiz wits. The set was wise, vocally sure and beautifully tough.

That hard edge might be White’s ace in the hole. She plainly meant every syllable of the survival tunes “God Bless the Child” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” — singing the former with swoops and growls, and driving the latter with streetwise sass. Peaco’s piano accompaniment rose to a frenzied, bitter edge in “Nobody Knows,” which White finished with such force that she sang the end without her microphone, defiantly roaring over the musicians. (Take that, Beyoncé.)

On the lighter side, White and Peaco sang together during a jaunty, funny “Route 66,” and White treated the audience to a wicked bit of understudy’s revenge as she bleatingly parodied Nell Carter singing “Mean to Me.” (Long ago, White was Carter’s substitute in “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”) A gospel-funk “Bridge Over Troubled Water” settled into an infectiously strolling tempo that had the audience clapping along.

White, who was featured in the Kennedy Center’s recent Washington-to-Broadway production of “Follies,” has had a notably up-and-down stage career, but she made easy work of several show tunes. The clever lyrics of “Necessity” (from “Finian’s Rainbow”) came through with wiseacre clarity, while the “Dreamgirls” showstopper “I Am Changing” was bluesy, stately and completely authoritative. The casual naughtiness of “When You’re Good to Mama” from “Chicago” was delightfully droll.

White wore her heart on her sleeve several times — growing teary during a mash-up of “You Are So Beautiful” and “More Than You Know,” her tribute to marriage equality — but never for too long. Her ballad skills were impeccable, and by the end of this very downtown evening, you wanted to join in the toast as White lifted a glass and sang the low, glowing standard “Here’s to Life.”

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