The Two of Clubs
The Siegels wonder aloud about the future of The Encore on West 47th Street. In the meantime, they review three performers they saw there and liked – all for very different reasons: Lennie Watts, Miles Phillips, and Marnie Baumer.
Will The Encore have an encore?
Rumors are swirling about the fate of The Encore, New York’s newest cabaret showroom. Despite establishing itself as an important venue right from the start when it opened last February – and generally drawing good crowds to most of its shows – this less-than-one-year-old club may soon shut down. In a reversal from the norm, in which popular piano bars cover the expenses of the more chancy showrooms, the booking acumen of Lennie Watts turned the basement club into one of cabaret’s hottest rooms. Unfortunately, that heat did not rise to the expansive piano bar above; it has (literally) been running on empty for a very long time. There have been some fascinating shows at The Encore in recent weeks and we figured we’d better tell you about them while the club still exists ...
Watts it all About, Lennie?
Speaking of Lennie Watts, not only does he book the room, he fills it, too. He fills it with his blazing tenor voice and (thanks to his talent and reputation) he also fills it with an audience. Despite booking and managing the club since its inception, he had not done a show there until just a few weeks ago. It turned out to be an unusual mixture of bleak attitude and hilarious patter wrapped inside an oftentimes musically thrilling evening.
The early part of his show was devoted to romantic ballads but soon, like the volatile weather in the Midwest, the temperature suddenly dropped, the sunny sky turned dark, and an emotional storm started thundering from the stage. Watts did something very few cabaret artists can pull off; he took the audience through a song cycle that dealt (bitterly) with unhappiness, failure, and loneliness – and he didn’t lose his audience. He got away with it because he was funny.
Playing with our expectations, for instance, Watts announced near the finale of the show that "This is the place in most cabaret acts where you’re told how much I’ve learned." He then proceeded to tell the audience that he hadn’t learned anything and that he would probably make the same mistakes all over again. He had the audiences roaring with laughter, primarily because he jumped right over a cabaret cliché and nailed an audience that knew that he was speaking their truth as well as his own. Singing over a bad cold, as well, Watts performed an eclectic mix of music that was tailored to his themes. Musical Director Steven Ray Watkins provided spirited accompaniment as both pianist and foil.
In the final analysis, the show was exactly what cabaret is supposed to be all about: originality, personality, and honesty. Watts only scheduled three shows for himself, all of which have just passed. We’d be astonished, however, if we’ve seen the last of this exceptional act. We presume he will bring it back – somewhere – sometime next year.
Miles to go…
Miles Phillips is an actor/singer. He’s also a very smart and perceptive artist. When he puts on a show you can expect an act as rich as a seven layer cake, with seven levels of meaning as well. His new show, cleverly titled Specific Overtures, deals with those moments when we step off into the unknown. It might be taking a chance on love or starting a new job. In its simplest form, it’s about putting out your hand to another person without knowing if your gesture will be reciprocated. In the instance of someone reading this review, who is otherwise unfamiliar with Phillips, it might be choosing to see Specific Overtures at The Encore on Thursday, December 15th at 7 PM.
Phillips has a warm, pleasing light baritone. He’s not a belter, but passion can infuse his voice with an emotional ardor that surpasses the bark of a belt, providing, instead, a genuine bite. He’s comfortable singing in a variety of styles that segue easily from standards to pop and rock, but all of his material is lyric driven. And all of it is carefully chosen to explore the theme of his show; as a consequence, he often unearths fresh perspectives out of songs you thought you knew. He makes those new perspectives stick thanks to his skills as an actor. One of the – if not the – most conceptually satisfying show of the year it is performed with considerable charm, grace, and style.
Marnie Baumer Puts on a Fishy Show
Cute and delightfully offbeat, Marnie Baumer put on a show at The Encore last month that was unusually wacky, even for her. She’s got a belt like nobody’s business, but many of her musical choices tended toward the delicate; they showed a tender, vulnerable side of her personality. She gave that image a spin, however, with goofy stories about her pet fish. If you are not a cabaret devotee, let us tell you right now that that’s not your usual cabaret fare, but Baumer has such an innocent charm that she can get away with just about anything.
You might want to get away from your holiday shopping to see Marnie Baumer at Weill Recital Hall. She and Leah Crocetto (we don’t know her work) will be performing a holiday concert there on December 21st at 8 PM. The Blonde Baumer on Christmas songs holds plenty of appeal for those of us who know how much she can invest in a song. In a word, she’s fun.
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