Arts » Pop Music & Jazz

Lillias White sighs over Cy Coleman at Venetian Room

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Traveling for work can be an obligation or an opportunity. Tony Award winner Lillias White is looking forward to jetting to San Francisco to sing songs by Cy Coleman at the Venetian Room this weekend, and she’s also still basking in the glow of her most recent trip.

“It was remarkable, incredible, tremendous, fantastic,” she says of visiting Lagos, Nigeria. White portrayed musician and activist Fela Kuti’s mother, Funmilayo, in the Broadway musical “Fela!” and the production recently toured to Kuti’s native Nigeria.

“It was so moving to be in the hometown of this great man who was very loved. What I didn’t get before was how much they loved his mother,” says White. “Funmilayo helped to educate people and to change things for women in the marketplace. She was a lioness and really loved.”

In a life-imitating-art-imitating-life moment, an abbreviated performance took place early in the tour at Kuti’s club, The Shrine, which is the setting for the show.

The production then moved to a convention center.

“We brought a lot of love and joy to the people of Lagos because it was like their hero was coming home. It filled my heart,” White says.

Coleman, creator of “Sweet Charity” and “Little Me,” also filled her heart for many years. “Cy was my buddy,” she says with a smile.

White first met Coleman at auditions for his musical “Barnum” where she had to display more than vocal talents. “They asked me if I could juggle and I could, I just hadn’t practiced in a while. I kept dropping things and finally I just looked at Cy and Joe Layton, the director, and said, ‘It gets better!’ I think they liked that and I got the job.”

After “Barnum,” White appeared in the original and revival productions of “Dreamgirls,” did a stint as Grizabella in “Cats,” survived the legendary flop “Carrie” and helped revive “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

Meanwhile, Coleman — whose birth name was Seymour Kaufman — scored hits with “City of Angels” and “The Will Rogers Follies.”

In 1997, he came calling again with a new opportunity that had been percolating for a few years.

The story of pimps, whores and the streets of a pre-Disneyfied Times Square, “The Life” gave White the character of Sonya, a very pragmatic hooker and the role for which she won Tony and Drama Desk awards. White says of Coleman, “He could see my personality, my light-hearted nature and he put that in the role. He really developed the part for me, which is something I never experienced before.”

In addition to the standards, White promises this weekend’s show, called “My Guy Cy,” will include some surprises.

“We’ll have material from ‘Like Jazz,’ his last collaboration with Marilyn and Alan Bergman and some other things not too many people have heard,” White says.

IF YOU GO

Lillias White

Presented by Bay Area Cabaret

Where: Venetian Room, Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $40 to $45
Contact: (415) 392-4400, www.cityboxoffice.com