[This is my review of Lennie Watts' Celebrate Me Home for KDHX-FM in St. Louis]
The St. Louis Home for the Holidays series at The Cabaret at Savor has been a kind of early Christmas present for local cabaret fans, offering a month of exemplary shows by local performers Pamela Reckamp and Tim Schall and Local Boy Made Good John McDaniel. The series comes to a smashing conclusion this weekend with Lennie Watts' idiosyncratically entertaining Celebrate Me Home.
Described with pithy accuracy as a "tender dynamo" by Cabaret Scenes' Elizabeth Ahlfors, Watts is an engaging mix of singer, actor, rock ‘n' roller and stand-up comic. He relies, perhaps, a bit too much on his head voice and falsetto at times (that's the rock ‘n' roller, I think), which made his voice sound a bit strained the fist time I heard it. It quickly became apparent that he was quite comfortable up there, however, and after a song or two my ears made the adjustment.
His musical taste, if this show is any indication, is eclectic, ranging from the Kenny Loggins/Bob James title song, to the hilarious "Schadenfreude" (one of many wonderful songs from the Tony-winning Avenue Q) and the droll "Department Stores Mean Christmas to Me" by singer/songwriter D.C. Anderson and Tina Landau.
There was also a lovely combination of "Out of My Dreams" (the often-overlooked charmer from Oklahoma) and "Where or When" (yet another hit from Babes in Arms, which overflows with them) as well as a hilariously demented "Christmas Blues" medley that Mr. Watts introduced by suggesting that the reason so many people get depressed at this time of year isn't the season itself so much as the music. The set included, among others, "Blue Christmas", "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer", "We Need a Little Christmas" and (I'm not making this up) Joni Mitchell's "River". I think Washboard Pete's "Christmas Blues" might have been in there as well, but I wouldn't swear to it. I literally laughed until I cried, and then had to deal with the lump in my throat from what came next - a tender mix of "Silent Night" and "Away in a Manger".
Mr. Watts' most recent New York show, of course, is Manilow '73 - '83, so the evening inevitably included several numbers by that often-reviled but immensely successful songwriter. As someone who is neither a detractor nor a "Fanilow", I have to say that Mr. Watts makes a good case for the Manilow songs in the show, although even in his skilled hands the lyrics for "Mandy" still seem perilously juvenile.
Joining Mr. Watts on piano and vocals for all of this was his music director Steven Ray Watkins. An often-praised cabaret performer in his own right, Mr. Watkins is, if this show is any indication, an ingenious arranger. I don't know whether it was he or Mr. Watts who came up with the idea of combining "That's Life" and "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries", for example, but the result was delightful in any case.
Mr. Watts strung everything together with entertaining and often drop-dead funny commentary on everything from the music to the plastic Pharaoh heads on the wall at the Flim Flam Room. If he ever tires of cabaret, there's a career waiting for him at comedy clubs.
The bottom line is that Lennie Watts' Celebrate Me Home brings the current Cabaret at Savor series to a satisfyingly festive conclusion. For ticket information, call 314-531-0220. For more information on upcoming Cabaret at Savor events, surf on over to cabaretatsavor.com. To find out what Lennie Watts is up to next, check out his web site, lenniewatts.com, or look him up on MySpace, where you can also hear some tracks from his fine I Want...You Want CD. If you make it to the show Friday, you might also want to buy a copy, so he doesn't have to schlep them all back to the Big Apple.