Ava Nicole Frances: “Here’s Looking at You Kid”
Ava Nicole Frances has a big voice, a Broadway diva voice, a shake-the-rafters voice. It has served her well in appearances at open mics and variety shows around town, fast becoming a favorite despite her young years. She is now 19 and studying at NYU but she has been performing in these venues for years. It is easy to imagine her showing up, singing a number designed to show off her talent and power, thrilling the audience as she hits the note everyone is waiting for, holds it even longer than they had imagined, and then leaving the stage after her five minutes of excitement. The problem with her solo New York cabaret debut at 54 Below, Here’s Looking at You Kid, is that it takes more than that to sustain an hour on a cabaret stage. The show ran like a well-oiled machine, but I didn’t want a machine. I wanted an introduction to a talented young woman sharing her youthful enthusiasm and love of performing while giving some insight into who she was and what she was feeling, while exploring the non-show-stopper facets of her instrument. She was given little if any opportunity to just relax and be herself.
The method to the evening seemed to be to plug her into one legit diva moment after another, showing off as much of her range and decibel levels as possible in each number. This aggressively arranged delivery showed up right away, in “I Can See It” (Tom Jones, Harvey Schmidt, from The Fantastiks). The youthful hope and joy which should have come easily to her was lost in a mishmash of an arrangement that devolved into a vocal gymnastic display that brought a roar from the audience at the blaring final note. This happened again and again—so often in fact that later in the show when she got to “Good Morning, Baltimore” (Mark Shaiman, Scott Wittman, from Hairspray) and “Nothing” (Marvin Hamlisch, Ed Kleban, from A Chorus Line) and “A Lot of Living to Do” (Charles Strouse, Lee Adams, from Bye Bye Birdie,) I didn’t really need to hear any of them. I knew just how it would go and where it would end up—and it did, followed each time by the audience’s Pavlovian response.
Before I attended the show, I had listened to Frances’s medley of “Over the Rainbow” (Harold Arlen, E. Y. Harburg, from The Wizard of Oz) and “Home” (Charlie Smalls, from The Wiz) and was captured by the loveliness of her sound. At 54 Below it started in much the same way but soon got bigger and bigger as if she were afraid the audience wouldn’t like her if she just sang softly and simply.
Her music director Michael Collum, along with Sean Murphy on bass, and Jon Berger on drums, did little to help her out. The arrangements were generally plodding, chock-a-block, and derivative. The singer might have given a different performance with more inspiring, adventurous settings. She should be working with musicians who can open her eyes to the possibilities of singing ad lib, of changing tempo from the original version, of being herself rather than a facsimile of a warhorse legit diva. When the show was winding down, a few of the questions I had during the show were answered when she thanked her director…her dad. He was perhaps a bit too close to both the singer and the show to offer help in its presentation. Frances is much too young to have her show follow the tired, overused device of a singing resumé of career highlights.
The intricacies of performing on a cabaret stage were apparently ignored or never considered, relying on vocal pyrotechnics to cover a multitude of sins. The singer held the microphone too high, covering her mouth, and sometimes her nose, and she had a not uncommon habit of lowering the mic at the end of a line, or a note, and then bringing it right back up again, sometimes doing a little “catch” motion and beating the rhythm on it with her fingertips. The stage at 54 Below is very high and often a singer will focus about six inches to a foot too high for the room; Frances did this as well. At least a half dozen times the final image of a song, as the note went on and on, was head thrown back, eyes focused on the ceiling, arm(s) outstretched. A more seasoned crew around her would have let her avoid a lot of the pitfalls that filled the show.
This was all too bad because at one moment in the show, when she forsook Broadway and went to the Great American Songbook for a beautifully realized medley of “My Foolish Heart” (Victor Young, Ned Washington) and “I Got Lost in His Arms” (Irving Berlin, from Annie Get Your Gun), it was thoughtful, it was heartfelt, it was moving —and it was the only time in Here’s Looking at You Kid that I really heard Ava Nicole Frances. I was mightily impressed.
Presented at 54 Below, 254 W. 54th St., NYC, October 10, 2023.
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”