Here's a look at the work of Lennie Watts: his own show and a few he's directing. Here's a man who talks the talk and walks the walk. That is, he knows whereof he speaks and sings. And he sings the hell out of his songs. Lennie Watts is back in CabaretLand --- of course, that's nothing new, since he is the Mayor of CabaretLand, being the re-elected President of MAC, Manhattan's cabaret organization,
who puts together its annual awards show, works regularly as a director of acts for prominent performers and some up-and-comers, teaches performance workshops, hosts events, and has now been tapped to coordinate programs for The Singers Forum. In past years, he toiled as booking manager for various nightclubs. But, besides guest spots in group shows and benefits (and a trio Christmas show with fellow cabaret musketeers), he hadn't done a solo show in many moons until the middle of this year. Now, following a summer where he kept busy with theater projects, it's back, this time at The Duplex on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. The show, one of the most memorable and gutsy of the quickly-disappearing 2012, is called Bloody Bloody Lennie Watts and it works like lightning --- it struck me as invigorating, dynamic, and startling at times: musically and emotionally, or both. Honest and heartfelt, reflective and revealing, reaching out rather than reaching for the self-indulgent, self-absorbed card, its visits to personal depths never leave the audience behind. As witnesses or of fellow travelers who know rocky terrain, we're commiserating and pulled in. The armor is dropped, the stiff upper lip quivers, and –as he stares down his demons and life's challenges --- the tough eyes soften and blink. In this perfect storm, specific rough personal shattering meets the wind of universality in cross currents. Somewhere beyond the storm clouds lies hope and hard-won wisdom and the tastes are bittersweet- but-welcome.
Through disarming, economical patter and simmering emotions held in check but threatening to boil over just often enough to keep things interesting and risky, the show moves briskly with building passion. Those who know just his flip, glib, and strutting sides may be quite stunned. Still, Lennie does not lose sight of his responsibilities as an entertainer to provide variety, pacing, the drama of surprise, comic relief, and to deliver the goods musically. "Standing Knee Deep in a River (Dying of Thirst)" powerfully and cathartically crystallizes where he's been, while a wild take on "My Favorite Things" suggests the show come with a two-Valium minimum, though you'd be too busy laughing to reach for a bottle. While others would fail miserably or die of sugar poisoning in trying to convincingly don the rose-colored glasses for "Tomorrow," especially with Annie now back on Broadway, it becomes a grown-up mantra here. The strong band is led by longtime musical colleague Steven Ray Watkins on piano (also often brought in to play and arrange shows for singers Lennie directs, such as two discussed below) and some vocals, with other harmony singing coming from three excellent women, each a formidable solo artist in her own right. They are outstanding and truly exciting here, used to excellent advantage and providing many exquisite moments: Wendy A. Russell, Tanya Holt and Lorinda Lisitza. The show will be at The Duplex on Monday, November 26 and Sunday, December 2. Show time is 7pm in both cases. If you missed it the first time around, you'd be a bloody fool to miss Bloody Bloody Lennie Watts again.
NOW LET'S TALK ABOUT OTHER SINGERS BEING DIRECTED BY LENNIE WATTS:
STEARNS MATTHEWS brought sunshine and sass via a new show to Don't Tell Mama on West 46 Street and has another performance scheduled for December 16 at 6 pm. A few years ago, Lennie was
hosting the first competition of Metropolitan Room's now-annual summer MetroStar Talent Challenge and I saw how Stearns (whom I'd seen perform in a duo show) shone among the competing singers and, when it was all over, became what he likes to call "the first-ever first runner-up." This latest outing, mostly successful, brings new glimpses at his sly and playful sides while continuing to showcase his especially attractive, elegant flowing/glowing singing voice that is always a true pleasure to hear on legato phrases and lovely high notes. Tenderness and wistfulness come through, coloring his phrasing subtly, as his face and eyes register feelings --- eschewing any overacting (grand strokes or big gasps, sighs, or weepiness). Two Noël Coward numbers --- "Sail Away" and "Come the Wild, Wild Weather" --- are gorgeous standouts. In his act, called The Importance of Being STEARNSest, playing on Oscar Wilde's title, he winkingly slips on the persona of a self-satisfied, shallow fellow giving away pictures of himself as raffle prizes. He also indulged his goofball side with his cat-that-swallowed-the-canary smile and a ukulele to accompany himself (and ask the audience to sing along) on one of the dopiest immature double-entendre novelty hits from music history. I won't spoil what's meant to be a silly surprise and seemed to be a real giggle for some. While seemingly equally comfortable with romantic-glow ballads like "He Touched Me" (Milton Schafer/Ira Levin) as he is with the lighthearted stuff, at times I felt like we were coasting and gliding and the show was mostly don't-break-a-sweat warm and fuzzy. I would have liked him to shake things up and find some drama and edge, to also stretch Stearns as vocalist and actor so the likeable guy could touch us more deeply, stir things up, not just tickle our funny bones and caress our ears. Three numbers paved the way to "Sesame Street," with that show's songs trying for more ageless messages. Still, mostly, the act was like an enjoyable "meal" made up of mostly of items from a trick-or-treat bag of very sweet candy that goes down easy and smooth, while a few servings from a Thanksgiving meal with something meaty and mighty might add welcome depth. (The serious declarative anthem, "I Am What I Am" from Jerry Herman's score to La Cage aux Folles, came at the end.) Stephen Sondheim's works made three appearances: while the formidable rant "Could I Leave You?" seemed a bad fit without a set-up and was taken with less vitriol as a calmer hissy fit, "Wait" (a number rarely approached outside the show Sweeney Todd), was exquisite and mesmerizing. From Gypsy, "You'll Never Get Away from Me" found Sondheim's lyric and Jule Styne's music in a warm, graceful setting that was persuasive.
The smiling boy next door with a naughty streak and a golden voice, Stearns is a charmer who projects goodwill and a good heart, contentment and joy, and director Lennie Watts has helped him relax and show more comfort and humor on stage, take some chances, and make things leaner and cleaner. I look forward to seeing more facets and him digging deeper emotionally and deeper into under-used items of the songbook as the years go by. I'd like to give a major nod and round of applause to musical partner James Kenon Mitchell, on piano, some vocals, and banter. He's a spunky, talented guy who lights up the stage and the show and the songs. Simply terrific, with an appealing singing voice and solid keyboarding, I'd love to see him as part of any show, including (I hope) one of his own. It was noticeable that bravura or extended endings were often avoided, with several pieces concluding in a quiet, understated way with no flourish or "button" to the point they may have felt like they still cried out for a climax or extra glissando and I sensed some audience hesitation in knowing "when" to clap, though when the applause came it was appreciative. And Stearns, James, and Lennie deserve applause for some fine work here.
NATASHA CASTILLO is a cabaret almost-"newbie," one of many young people Lennie has guided and imbued with his priorities in cabaret performance DOs and DON'Ts. Some begin as students in his classes, as did she. I caught her Duplex debut show, Anything But Ordinary, and she's has one subsequent shot since and has another as the year draws to a close: December 28. She shows promise, certainly has more to learn (as do most still getting their feet wet in cabaret; first-timers, even those with more life experience or years and years of musical theatre, acting, being in bands or concerts or doing variety show work – very different fields from the elusive and delicate intimacy of the cabaret form). Natasha has had such experiences. When Lennie collaborates with folks, he helps them find their way and show who they are; he's not an advocate of wearing a mask or copying an icon or letting autobiographical patter be prattle that's long-winded narcissism or insipid tedious Twitter feed. When someone's had a unique background or unusual experiences and wants to share this with an audience, he finds a way to shape that so it works in a show. It's tricky with early-career or debut shows: the audience is likely to be made up of friends and family who know some of the stories OR total strangers who have no reference point for this blank slate. It's not that easy being green. Natasha's life, which began in Malaysia and Taiwan, has led her down some surprising routes and challenges she talks about without dwelling on the sad. She includes "Qing Nan Sho" from the repertoire of her late mother, an Asian star. It would be unfair to give away certain facts she shares in a review. She sings nicely, smoothly, with warmth and zest, but needs more nuance and personalization on some numbers to "own" them more. Perhaps her pop-heavy repertoire corseted her and didn't give her as much opportunity to explore characterization with rich lyrics. "The Butterfly," from a short-lived musical whose Neil Bertram score I admire, The Story of My Life, showed she can embrace a very sensitive story-song and it suits her kind-hearted, optimistic attitude. Physically, she could work on more natural, less cliché gestures to accent lines and words and songs where such underlining is not needed. In some numbers, she is too physically static. Still, her enthusiasm, determination to share her material and refreshing modesty go a very long way to making her act endearing and engaging. I suspect that, because she appears to be industrious and motivated, with a will to please, that Natasha Castillo will grow and develop. Steven Ray Watkins gave her major support on piano.
And now for something completely different: THE STRIP SHOW is described in its publicity as "an irreverent look at what it means to reveal what's underneath. It's an exploration of stripping---literally and otherwise,
through stories and songs by Fats Waller, Queen, David Pomeranz, and many others----through the lens of classic burlesque show." I caught it at The Duplex, too. It's neither smutty nor overly ambitious or pretentious. It's led by flouncing, flamboyant, goateed, pop-eyed Harry Althaus in a bouncy, bossy, gleeful manner with double takes and double entendres. Broad in style in all senses, his also-broad body is upholstered with what seems like a grab-bag of items from dressing gown to spats. Camp is stylized. There's good-humored eyebrow-raising. The show seeks to entertain and does so -- in its own cheeky, slightly demented and cornball over-the-top way. Musical direction is by the very versatile MAC Award winner Tracy Stark, with a period hat, gamely playing along in all senses of the phrase, with quips, smiles, shrugs, a few dance steps and singing. A major asset to many cabaret shows for years, she is particularly effective and delicious as part of this act. Foils and back-up vocalist/dancers for Harry are the lithe and spunky, fake-flirty livewires Joshua Warr and James Wells, who make their big reactions and smilingly slinky, synchronized movements more than just going back to the old grind. With someone less savvy in charge, such a concept show could easily be more tiresome or offensive. In such endeavors, one can become bored when folks go overboard. Lennie keeps the cast reined in and on the same page, so that the tone is set and maintained and things never go too far or seem strained. There's fun with the dopey stuff, making things more splashy than trashy, kind of a valentine to a bygone era.
FRANK DAIN is my employer, as editor of Cabaret Scenes Magazine, where I've been a writer and worn other hats for years (I like a good hat) and a wonderful, kind-hearted friend, so reviewing his show, which I discussed with him as he developed his song list, would be what we call a conflict of interests. But I can't say it doesn't hold interest for me; before I had taken a job with him, I was taken by his voice on his CD. And his show, which I saw a preview of over a year ago and saw on his opening night this year, is a tribute to a superstar singer whose own dreamy voice and style and classic romantic songs have been filling my ears for many years: Johnny Mathis, Frank's favorite male singer. In looking at Lennie Watts's direction of his show, it just reinforces my view that this director has a sure hand in helping singers be sure-footed in being themselves on stage, not clones of each other or him, or the subject of their tribute shows. It's also interesting to me to see Frank as a cabaret singer himself after discussing many vocalists we've both seen and listened to on CD together --- to see how he attends to what he sees as crucial aspects of a communicative performer's job. His show can be seen at Don't Tell Mama for two 6 pm Saturday slots: December 8 and 15.
I haven't seen the newest show by AMY WOLK and her guests. Her first scheduled performance was canceled due to the hurricane that took electricity away from The Duplex's Greenwich Village area. But the November 12 Duplex Gala, a cavalcade of their upcoming and resident acts, featured her in a running musical comedy bit, presenting her as a sit-com character, the daughter of a medical professional whose field of specialty allowed for a myriad of rhymed synonymous euphemisms and code words. She was a hit with the audience with these loopy bits. I've enjoyed her work in the past and am looking forward to catching her: her Wolk on the Wild Side can be seen at the venue on November 25, December 9 and 17. Also in the Gala that night was Lennie Watts with his singers, reminding me of his excellent show with that powerful combination of "Help!" and "Somebody to Love." Lennie was also quite winning singing Johnny Rodgers's/Lina Koutrakos's "One More Moment" at the MAC They Write the Songs event on November 18, where he also welcomed the audience. Quite the busy guy at various locations. No wonder he's quite the bloody guy, too. He's got cabaret in his blood, whatever job he's holding.