Friday, December 21, 2007

Home for the Holidays

[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 To find out what Lennie Watts is up to next, check out his web site,, 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.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Visions of Sugar Plums

[This is my review of the Joffrey Ballet's Nutcracker for KDHX-FM.]

"It's that time of year", according to the lyrics of "The Christmas Waltz", "when the world falls in love". If that's so, then one of the things the world falls in love with would be Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker.

A quick glance at the KDHX arts and events calendar shows at least three different production in the coming weeks, plus one spoken word adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman's original tale.

From 1989 through 2001, though, the biggest Nutcracker of them all was the one hosted by the Fox Theatre. It originally featured the State Ballet of Missouri (now Kansas City Ballet) and then (from 1997 to 2001) Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. This year [December 5 - 9, 2007] the Fox and Dance St. Louis have brought The Nutcracker back with a bang in the form of the 1987 Joffrey Ballet production.

Making its first appearance here in St. Louis, the Joffrey production was everything you might expect from a world-renowned company that just marked its 50th anniversary last year. Designed and (with the exception of the "Land of Snow" and "Waltz of the Flowers" sequences) choreographed by the company's late founder Robert Joffrey, the production is of the traditional "story book" variety inspired by the original 1892 production, the 1940 Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo version, and Joffrey's own collection of collection of antique toys and Christmas cards. It was visually stunning - a late 19th-century print come to life, complete with dancing dolls and a 15-foot-tall Mother Ginger. It was also a pleasure to hear, despite the use of amplification, thanks to solid playing by the Ballet Orchestra of St. Louis under Leslie B. Dunner.

All the elements you'd want in a polished Nutcracker were present when we saw the show on Saturday night, including spectacular dancing by the principals and precision work by the ensemble and the various specialty turns in Act II. I was particularly impressed by Kathleen Thielheim and Fabrice Calmels as the sinuous Arabian "coffee" duo and, of course, Maia Wilkins and Willy Shives as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nutcracker Prince, but the entire cast deserves a hearty "bravi"; no weak links here.

Does the Joffrey Nutcracker signal a return of what used to be welcome annual event? I hope so. Some things are traditional for good reasons. The Nutcracker speaks, ultimately, to the happy child in all of us, and that's someone we need to remember at this time of the year.

Upcoming Dance St. Louis events include the Tania Pérez-Salas Compañia de Danza in January, the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre in February, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in April [2008]; visit the web site at for more information or call 314-534-6622.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Local Hero

[The text of my review for KDHX-FM of John McDaniel's appearance at The Cabaret at Savor]

One of the things that sets cabaret apart from other forms of musical theatre is the fact that its greatest practitioners are not necessarily its greatest singers. Anyone who has ever seen Steve Ross or Andrea Marcovicci on stage, for example, knows that a powerful performer need not have a powerful voice.

Having seen John McDaniel at the Cabaret at Savor on Friday [December 7th, 2007] in the second of a three-show appearance, I can now add him to the short list of Great Cabaret Artists Who Can't Sing Worth a Hoot. Indeed, John McDaniel the singer has such a limited range that John McDaniel the incredibly successful, Grammy and Emmy Award-winning music director can't always find a comfortable key for his voice.

Big deal. Mr. McDaniel is such a talented arranger/pianist and such an engaging performer that it was easy to forget his vocal limitations and simply enjoy his lively anecdotes about his life and work since graduating from Kirkwood High School locally and his sympathetic performances of a wide range of music.

The program, in fact, was one of the most eclectic the Flim Flam Room has seen, ranging from standards like "You're the Top" and "The Sound of Music" (briefly combined with "Jingle Bells" on the piano) to country star Tricia Yearwood's touching "The Song Remembers When" (which I think I'm going to have to learn), to McDaniel's own compositions. The latter include a pair of top-notch "I was in love" songs*, "My Gemini" and "A Christmas Blue Song" (written for Bette Midler who, alas, never recorded it).

There were even a few numbers with openly political content - an unusual and, in my view, welcome development. Jimmy Buffet's "Only Time Will Tell", for example, asks "Are we destined to be ruled by a bunch of old white men / Who compare the world to football and are programmed to defend", while a medley of John Lennon's "Imagine" and "Happy Christmas (The War is Over)" suggests that we "Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too". Granted Mr. McDaniel wimped out a bit by changing "religion to "injustice", but in our increasingly angry political climate simply including the song at all was a somewhat courageous step, so I'm not complaining. And in any case, ending the medley by softly singing "the war is over" made the point effectively enough.

There were other memorable moments in the evening, including Alan Menken and David Zippel's wistful "In the Cards", about a kid who lives an athletic fantasy life through his baseball card collection, and Paul Williams' romantic "Dancing on the Moon" from (of all things) a still-in-development musical based on the TV show Happy Days.

As if all that weren't impressive enough, Mr. McDaniel's penultimate medley is improvised on the spot, based on favorite tunes called out by audience members. The night I saw him, that included "If I Were a Rich Man" "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" and - completely coincidentally - "Mama, a Rainbow" (from Minnie's Boys, an obscure 1970 musical biography of the Marx Brothers). That sort of thing can come across as little more than a gimmick, but Mr. McDaniel makes it work.

John McDaniel's appearance was part of the "St. Louis Home for the Holidays" series of shows at Savor. The series continues with local favorite Tim Schall on December 13th and 14th and concludes with former St. Louisian Lennie Watts on December 20th and 21st. For ticket information, visit the web site, . For information on John McDaniel's upcoming appearances, visit his site, where, if you are so inclined, you can play "Moonlight in Vermont" on the interactive piano graphic on the home page.

Sorry, I just notice things like that.

*According to Steve Ross, there are four types of love songs: "I was in love", I am in love", "I want to be in love" and "New York, New York".

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Standard Time

[This is my review of Julie Budd's The Standard of Things for KDHX-FM in St. Louis.]

Singer/actress Julie Budd came to The Cabaret in the Savoy Room series this week accompanied by an impressive biography and glowing reviews by the likes of Rex Reed and the late blues and jazz critic Philip Elwood. It is, therefore, a bit embarrassing to confess that while I found her performance on opening night technically impressive - her virtuosity is really unimpeachable - I also found it, for the most part, curiously un-involving.

Perhaps it was the sound system, which unnecessarily amplified her powerful voice to somewhere around the pain threshold; or the programming in the first act, which raced through seventeen American Songbook standards in a sort of Cliff's Notes fashion that tended to gloss over contrasts in lyrical content; or the fact that, while Ms. Budd always engaged the audience with her between-songs patter, she rarely did it with the songs themselves.

A child prodigy who began singing professionally in the late 1960s at the age of twelve, Ms. Budd has often been favorably compared to Barbra Streisand, who made her own big impression on Broadway (as Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get for You Wholesale) when Ms. Budd was still a tyke. Like the older singer, with whom she shares Brooklyn origins, Ms. Budd has a big "Broadway belter" voice, a fine sense of comedy, and a tendency to elongate and distort vowels in her singing. The comparison is further emphasized by her inclination to take considerable liberties with melody and rhythm (no shortage of tempo rubato in this show) and rely heavily on grand vocal and physical gestures. I lost count of the number of times she finished a song with her arms spread wide and head thrown back.

There's nothing objectively wrong with any of this. If this had been a concert in Powell Hall rather than cabaret in the Savoy Room, it would have been fine and, indeed, much of the opening night audience clearly loved every minute of it. For me, however, the bottom line was that the show was less about the music and lyrics and more about Julie Budd's remarkable dynamic range and vocal stamina. Cabaret, as Steve Ross has observed, is all about the lyrics, and I felt that they were somewhat short-changed.

That's a bit surprising, given that Ms. Budd clearly appreciates a well-turned phrase and, in fact, she's at her best when she takes a bit more time with a song and allows the lyric to take center stage. A good example is her second-act tribute to the late Dorothy Fields, which ranges from the heartfelt combination of "I'm in the Mood for Love" (music by Jimmy McHugh, introduced by Frances Langford the 1935 film Every Night at Eight) and "The Way You Look Tonight" (introduced by Fred Astaire in Swing Time in 1936) to the hilarity of "If They Could See Me Now" (from 1966's Sweet Charity, the first of three collaborations with Cy Coleman). Moments like these were the high points of the evening for me.

Ms. Budd's chatty and often quite informative comments on the music and her own introduction to it were also bright spots in the show. An anecdote involving the late Peggy Lee was particularly amusing, and since Richard Connema includes it in his 2004 review of her show, you might as well read it there . It would have been nice to hear more of that same open and direct communication in her musical performance. She's clearly capable of it, and for more intimate venues it would be more effective.

One person with whom Ms. Budd clearly did communicate during the show was her pianist and music director Arthur Weiss. Alert to every change of tempo and melodic variation, Mr. Weiss was the ideal accompanist and - assuming he was working from his own charts [which he wasn't - see his comment below] - a darned fine arranger as well, seamlessly blending songs into inventive medleys. His combination of Jimmy Webb's "Didn't We" and Neil Sedaka's "Hungry Years", for example, produced an interesting hybrid with a musical life of its own. He's a major asset in the act.

Julie Budd's The Standard of Things continues at The Cabaret at the Savoy Room through Sunday [December 2nd, 2007]; call Metrotix at 314-534-1111 for tickets. If you're a fan of Ms. Budd or, for that matter Ms. Streisand, you can probably ignore most of my complaints. She does what she does very well. If her style suits yours, you won't want to miss her.

Those of you outside of the St. Louis area should know that after her appearance here it's back to The Big Apple to complete shooting of the film Two Lovers and to prepare for a New Year's Eve gig with the Long Island Philharmonic. For information on Julie Budd's future appearances and recordings, check out her web site: .

Next at the Savoy Room: cabaret legend Andrea Marcovicci January 31st through February 3rd, 2008. Check out their web site for details.