BY ROB LESTER, with Singer/Fellow Audience Member BLAKE ZOLFO—-This is the first in a series of pieces where my comments as a reviewer will have as an added voice the perspective of someone whose voice I admire in more ways than one—- another cabaret singer whose work I’ve been impressed with. The singer, in this case is the talented Blake Zolfo whose first appearances this year in New York cabaret impressed me —as did his awareness and dedication when I interviewed him as NiteLife Person of the Week. As will happen in the future in this series, he was my guest at the show and agreed to take notes and write up his reactions, not attempting to wear the journalist’s “critic’s hat,” but to look at the show from the eyes of another performer, hopefully both learning from the choices made by the artist we’re watching and sharing thoughts as a singer and audience member in a way other cabaret-goers can relate to. And, of course, we both keep in mind that cabaret audiences often have a number of other singers in the house, but they and the non-performers don’t see the vast number of shows that critics do, night in and night out’ that affects perspective, too. So, first my comments and then Blake’s, on Frenchie Davis, who is also a Pick of the Week, since she will be back at Manhattan’s busy Metropolitan Room this Sunday night, October 23, at 9:30. We saw her previous appearance in a series of regular visits there.
Frenchie Davis is, by any measure, is a wow. The alumna of TV’s The Voice has a volcanic voice that she uses to great effect on her eclectic material from more genres than you can count on the fingers on both hands. The range of material is only matched by her vocal range—which can go from a crooning gentleness to a powerhouse spine-tingling sustained tower of strength. Called The Frenchie Davis Experience, perhaps grandly, it is indeed quite the experience as this formidable but fun force and a half to be reckoned with is her own solidly unapologetic unique self. Confidence reigns from the tips of her toes to the tip of her tart tongue to the tipping of her hat to top hip-hop stars to Broadway, where she spent some Rent time. Many remember her from the early days of American Idol. Comfortable in her own tattooed skin, she now carries diva gravitas, but with a knowing wink of earthiness.
We reviewers who sometimes hear some of the same songs done almost the same way tire more quickly of the pale carbon copies (there’s a metaphor due for extinction!), and can be grateful for originality that seems that’s even a fresher breath of fresh air than it might be for others who don’t get to cabarets as often. So, certainly originality counts for a lot for many of us who carry those notebooks daily for scribbling in. Thus, knowing from the outset that Ms Davis would not be singing the usual suspects and had as her raison d’être these days re-inventing songs she turns inside out had me up and ready. While professional protocol for press people is a prepared set list, I try not to glance at it in advance, so I can meet each item on the set list with the same surprise of delight, intrigue, disappointment, or confusion as others in the crowd.
I knew the evening would include her roof-raising home run on “Home” the song from The Wiz credited to the late Charlie Smalls, but in fact ghost-written by Larry Kerchner. I’d heard her do it at the Metropolitan Room in a multi-performer show, and was almost as blown away as Dorothy’s Kansas house in the cyclone in the original context. When a singer has that one shot in a concert among other artists, the wise choice is also crucial in making spectators speculate about whether they want to see you in a full show. (This week’s Cabaret Convention concerts were a strong reminder of that opportunity for making a dazzling impression by making the most of a one-song spot.)
For me, nothing came close to the way the talented and versatile singer kept the “Home” fires burning. Was it that consistency? Recent memory bringing anticipated pleasure again satisfied? Well, yes. And that it was fresh all over again. And, while I was very satisfied and captivated as observer and reviewer, and loved the bravery of taking other FAR less artful pop songs and making them ENTERTAINING in new dressing, nothing beats a high quality song done with quality interpretation. I greatly respect and am tickled by Frenchie’s hat trick recipe of taking material that to me (openly admitting an allergic reaction to rap and hip hop and teeny pop) is not engaging and making it just that. While it is diverting and an accomplishment bordering on inclusion in Ripley’s Believe It or Not: Music Edition, for me the lemonade made out of lemons can’t pass a taste test when champagne is also served. Familiarity with the contemporary music chosen would make a difference in amused, startled, or happy recognition, and tablemate Blake Zolfo showed more signs of “I know this song well.” And let me use that thought as a segue to introduce his point of view as someone younger and newer in the biz, but who had just weeks before done his own full show on that very Metropolitan Room stage and planning his return there in the new year coming up.
THE BLAKE TAKE: BLAKE ZOLFO’S THOUGHTS
I found the most effective parts of this show were the “Frenchified” mashups/medleys from her “unwritten Broadway musical”. She found a way to take songs that we all know (and younger generations grew up on) and really put a personal spin on them, showcasing her upbringing in jazz and gospel in a fun, almost poking-fun-at-herself kinda way. Her Britney Spears Medley (featuring “Hit Me Baby One More Time” and “Toxic,” among others) took an artist who is not necessarily noted for her voice and created songs that were tuneful, and allowed us to hear Frenchie’s gloriously huge voice singing a version of these songs I hadn’t heard before— and won’t again. I feel that this is the result of a really fun, healthy partnership between Miss Davis and her music director.)
I found that some of the most fun moments of the show were her banter bits, which I enjoyed so much that I wish there had been more opportunities to get to know her. Her “thank-you”s to her nonexistent band gave us a chance to see how silly she can be, while also reminding us just how much of a true performer Frenchie is, with her thanks culminating in a thank-you for the “singer on lead vocals it.”
Knowing that Frenchie Davis is often booked in large venues, both Blake and I wonder how attending her shows in bigger spaces might feel different. As he put it so succinctly, “The vocals at times seemed too big for the small, intimate space of the Metropolitan Room.” When I had interviewed him about his own show, we’d talked about how much personal connection he would reveal in his song set-ups, so I wondered how, with that thought in mind, what wasn’t said by this audience-friendly diva that he would have liked to hear. And he replied, “I wanted to hear more about WHY she was so drawn to certain songs, as opposed to just hearing that she was drawn to them.” I’ll second that, and meanwhile encourage you to have The Frenchie David Experience this weekend.