Lennie Watts

October 11, 2015 | By | Add a Comment

Lennie-WattsIt’s been suggested that one of the more important things an actor can do to maintain a professional career is to have a sense of his or her “type.” If that sounds limiting and horribly commercial-minded, so it may be. But if you’re serious about actually working as an actor, then accepting with grace the range of roles that are in your reach can be useful. If Steve Buscemi or Danny DeVito had dreamed only of playing Romeo and Henry V, they’d be dreaming still, and they would likely be household names only if they’d taken up serial killing as a sideline.

Lennie Watts touches on all this matter in his new Don’t Tell Mama show, “Shameless: The Lennie Watts Musical.” Known these days mostly as a cabaret performer and a director of cabaret shows (and as president of the Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs), Watts previously had a life as an actor in musical theatre. And now he wants back in. In “Shameless,” he and his director, Richard Sabellico, have created a show framed as a kind of public audition for Watts’s return to the legit stage. It is a live-and-in-person demo reel that demonstrates just what sorts of theatrical assignments he’d be capable of auditioning for at this point in his career

The concept is introduced gradually, starting with an extended opening sequence built around the song “A Musical” (Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick) from Something Rotten. (Watts makes the song brighter, more heartfelt and, frankly, more human, than it sounds over at the St. James Theatre.) This introductory portion of the program also hilariously juxtaposes references to disparate show tunes—for instance, Sondheim’s “Ladies in Their Sensitivities” from Sweeney Todd and Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer’s “Jubilation T. Cornpone” from Li’l Abner.

The bulk of the show features Watts enacting musical excerpts from dream roles. What is instructive about his set is seeing how varied a collection of characters might successfully be played by a talented character actor of a certain stripe. Among the roles Watts tries out are the Padre from Man of La Mancha, Uncle Fester from The Addams Family, Albin from La Cage aux Folles, and Edna Turnblad from Hairspray.

The contrasts Watts creates can be bracing. His rendition of Fester’s “The Moon and Me” (Andrew Lippa) is innocent and earnest. But it seems especially sweet coming directly after his barking, menacing turn as The Threepenny Opera’s Street Singer performing “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” (Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Marc Blitzstein). It’s easy to imagine Watts successfully taking on either of these roles in a theatre, not just in a club act.

Toward the end of the show, Watts performs songs from roles he knows he’ll never have a chance to play. Included is a tender “It All Fades Away” (Jason Robert Brown), which was sung on Broadway by Steven Pasquale in The Bridges of Madison County.

Steven Ray Watkins lends Watts his usual strong support as pianist and musical director. Watts performs some portions of the show not on the stage but in the audience, and on the night I attended, there were problems during such sequences with sporadically disappearing amplification. It didn’t faze Watts in the least, but I hope the problem will be remedied going forward.

Throughout the evening, Watts takes on a comic air of bemused self-deprecation. This begins with the very title of the show, which underscores the supposed shame involved in creating a cabaret act that is in fact a commercial for one’s acting talents. It ends with the finale, Kander and Ebb’s “Mr, Cellophane,” the quintessential “don’t mind li’l ol’ me” song, from Chicago. Of course, the self-effacing schlemiel tooting his own horn in embarrassed desperation is just another role for Watts to play. Surely he, like anyone who’s been working as an entertainer for a minute or two, takes it as a given that a healthy streak of shamelessness is another of the essential ingredients in the recipe for continued success in the business.

“Shameless: The Lennie Watts Musical”
Don’t Tell Mama  –  September 28, October 5, 12, 19

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. In addition to reviewing for BistroAwards.com, he contributes regularly to theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com. Other reviews and articles have appeared in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

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