It didn't require waiting until Lari White sang the Oscar Hammerstein II-Richard Rodgers "A Cockeyed Optimist" at her Oak Room debut to think of Reba McEntire. McEntire blared the cheerful anthem when she played Nellie Forbush in the Carnegie Hall concert presentation of South Pacific last year and proved she's a natural -- just as she did when she played Annie Oakley in the last Annie Get Your Gun revival. The Nashville-based White is every bit the intuitive actor that McEntire is. By the time she aired her cockeyed optimism, she'd already indicated that anything McEntire did, she could do as well, demonstrating as much by emoting the stuffing out of "There's a Terrific Band and a Real Nice Crowd" (Marilyn Bergman-Alan Bergman-Billy Goldenberg, from the Broadway musical Ballroom) and "Museums," the Steven Lutvak child-parent paean.
"For me, it's all about the words," White said in an act directed with seamless efficiency by Eric Michael Gillett. She was obviously speaking from the heart, which may have surprised patrons fooled by her faux opener. That ditty, something about being born in country sunshine, gave the temporary impression that you can take the girl out of Nashville but you can't take Nashville out of the girl. White was so determined to fit herself into a Manhattan venue, like an arm fitting into a velvet glove, she reprised a Yentl medley -- "Where Is It Written?" "No Wonder," "A Piece of the Sky" (the Bergmans-Michel Legrand) -- that she'd stitched together for a recent Bergman tribute, at which she wowed the crowd and incidentally must have proved there's universal application in the very particular.
The lady has a voice that sounds the way a sword catching the light looks. She unsheathed it as early as the gag opener and in her immediate follow-up, the Sammy Cahn-Saul Chaplin "Please Be Kind." No need to be kind; she's got it.
Presented by and at the Oak Room at the Algonquin,
59 W. 44th St., NYC.
Feb. 27-March 3.