Lennie Watts’ RockArrange – Top-40 with a Twist

January 5, 2016

WattsFor the Winter Rhythms festival at Urban Stages, Lennie Watts uncovered a new category of cabaret songs. He reconfigured recordings, mostly by rock groups, that were popular from the early 1960s’ Beatles forward to Aerosmith and the Backstreet Boys in the 1990s, and even to *NSYNC in 2000. Performed by nine first-rate singers, the Watts arrangements slowed tempos somewhat, emphasized lyrics over noise, and were generally handed to solo artists not necessarily of the same gender as the original hit-makers. Occasionally, of course, without loud strings and brass to drown out the words, this combination exposed banal lyrics or bad rhymes. But by and large this concept worked well and should be continued with this show somewhere beyond one night, and in other ventures like it.

The songs were all; there was no narration whatsoever in this presentation. Audience members were on their own if they cared to identify who originally sang—and who wrote—each song, and when it was released. That complete lack of chat left room for 22 full numbers (including mash-ups) in about an hour. All that music required not one, but two topflight musical directors who comprised the entire accompanying band: Ted Stafford, who played guitar; and Steven Ray Watkins, who played piano. Both men also sang occasional backup. (Although most number were carried by a single lead singer, a bevy of backup singers—ranging from a single virtual co-star to everyone else on the stage—happily figured in the Watts remixes.)

A couple of numbers sounded pretty close to their originators’ versions, such as the mash-up of two early 1980s Pointer Sisters songs, “He’s So Shy” (Tom Snow, Cynthia Weil) and “Slow Hand” (Michael Clark, John Bettis), soloed by Natasha Castillo, but with two women and a man for backup. On the other hand, The Eagles’ 1976 hit “Take It to the Limit” (Don Henley, Randy Meisner) was somewhat speeded up and rousingly delivered by Tommy J. Dose in near-gospel mode. The same group’s “The Long Run” (Henley, Glenn Frey) was even more of a departure, with Wendy Russell as the soulful sole singer. The best decade-spanning combination was “Dance with Me” (from the group Orleans, 1975, by John J. Hall and Johanna Hall) and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” (Whitney Houston’s 1987 Number 1 hit,. by George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam), sung by Lisa Viggiano, abetted by Karen Mack.

“Take a Chance on Me” (Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus) was thoughtfully seductive in Rachel Hanser’s delivery, a significant departure from ABBA’s original 1976 bouncier take. The most notable gender-switching came with “I Hear a Symphony” (Lamont Dozier, Brian and Eddie Holland) in a touching, serious consideration of the lyrics by an all-male quartet, replacing the Supremes trio from 1965. Jim Speake assumed the Diana Ross lead singing role, with Watkins, Stafford and Dose in vocal support. A medley of two Beatles songs, “You Can’t Do That” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (both by Lennon & McCartney) was neatly fronted by a woman, Christy Trapp, but had all four males singing behind her.

The Rolling Stones were missing from this long and eclectic set list, but I do have a suggestion for the next go-round of the show: a balladized female solo version of their “Wild Horses” (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards) from 1971. Any one of the seven women in this show, whose number includes Eve Eaton, could handle this very nicely.

Winter Rhythms at Urban Stages  –  December 5


About the Author

Robert Windeler is the author of 18 books, including biographies of Mary Pickford, Julie Andrews, Shirley Temple, and Burt Lancaster. As a West Coast correspondent for The New York Times and Time magazine, he covered movies, television and music, and he was an arts and entertainment critic for National Public Radio. He has contributed to a variety of other publications, including TV Guide, Architectural Digest, The Sondheim Review, and People, for which he wrote 35 cover stories. He is a graduate of Duke University in English literature and holds a masters in journalism from Columbia, where he studied critical writing with Judith Crist. He has been a theatre critic for Back Stage since 1999, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and is a member of The Players and the American Theatre Critics Association.