Frances Ruffelle LIVEs in New York
By Alana Silber
Sitting at the small round table at The Green Room 42, I sipped a glass of chardonnay and waited for Frances Ruffelle to take the stage. In the meantime, I chatted casually with the press photographer Magda, who had previously seen Frances perform in London. “So how would you describe her performance?” I asked, hoping to gain some insight before the lights went down. “One word,” she said. “Surprise.”
In that moment, Frances waltzed in, carrying a multi-colored bouquet of flowers wearing a black trench coat. Her shock of dark hair seemed to carry a life of its own while, on her feet, were a pair of gawky unzipped black boots.
From the moment she took the stage and began her first song of the night, “Elsewhere,” written by herself and record producer Mike Thorne, I was mesmerized. Low notes brimming with warmth and sultry vibrato filled the room with a buzzing energy. Intimate looks and smiles directed at individual audience members broke the fourth wall and allowed an immediate entranceway to the world of Frances. At once, she was a performer that onlookers could find both awe-inspiring and relatable, a feat matched by only few live artists I’ve seen.
Magda had been more than right, I thought to myself, as Frances turned around and threw her bouquet into the audience before rushing off the stage and zig-zagging her way through the tables. It was going to be a night spent at the edge of my seat, with surprises at every turn.
Frances, who at 20 years old originated the role of Eponine on Broadway in Les Miserables, is a reckless, wild and vivacious performer. It seems she took us through the entirety of her human experience in the one-hour set, utilizing everything in her toolbox.
Besides her unique and fantastic vocals, there was poignant and comical spoken word, flashing lights, stomping, dancing and, much to our pleasure, many songs filled with French melodrama.
There was never a dull moment, and this was first proved when she walked through the audience and told each man she saw that he was “delicious,” until she grabbed a seemingly bewildered man by the arm, yanked him on stage and proceeded to say “I hope you can sing.” The audience laughed in unison but when she handed him a microphone, it turned out the joke was on us. Together, Frances performed an amazing duet of “Paris Summer” (Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood) with that man, whom we later found out was her great friend Wayne Wilcox. Their voices blended like silk, and they leaned into each other with the affection and care of long-lost lovers.
Later on, she was joined by the gorgeous and powerfully talented Catherine Porter, with whom she sang “Little Girl Blue” (Rodgers and Hart) and one of my favorite pieces of the night, “The Yeh, Yeh Song” (Georgie Fame).
The set list included many classics, such as “Lonely Night in Paris” (B. Troup and Alcivar), “It’s Alright with Me” (Cole Porter), and “Gotta Move” (Barbra Streisand) combined with an array of twists, such as millennial references to Instagram and Facebook. It was also clear that Frances holds a devotion for Edith Piaf, and her songs “La Foule”, “Hyme L’Amour” and “Je Ne Regrette Rien,” described by her as songs that challenge, were utilized with ease and breathtaking beauty throughout the set.
However, the defining moment of the evening was when Frances removed her combat boots, climbed on top of the grand piano, and sang a pumped up, vibrant version of her career-defining song, “On My Own” (Les Miserables). I’m sure that no one in the audience knew what to expect, but received exactly what they were looking for.
The entire night, I found myself writing single words to describe Frances’ performance. My notebook is littered with adjectives such as “quirky,” “outlandish,” “unstoppable,” “lonely” and “passionate.” But the one word that never stops appearing is simply “alive.”
Frances, along with her sizzling and brilliant band, with Samuel Zerna on bass, Tim Basom on guitar, Dustin Kaufman on drums, and Jude Obermuller on keyboard ignited a fire inside every person in that audience, making us feel animated. They played off each other in true team fashion, laughing at small mistakes and urging the vitality of the music upwards and onwards. There was one moment in particular that summed it all up. In the midst of her set, her mouth directly next to the microphone, Frances mixed up a phrase in one of her spoken word speeches but her band continued to play, eyes bright like polished silver as Frances raised her hands out in front of her . . . “Ah,” she said with an unbelievable sense of knowing and humanness, “the beauty of live theatre.”
Ah, the beauty indeed. Frances Ruffelle, you are that beauty.
Frances Ruffelle delivers songs and medleys like individual one-act plays. . . filled with drama, deep emotion and comic relief.
Her music is arranged by Gwyneth Herbert with additional arrangements by Jude Obermuller, the vignettes by Ms. Ruffelle and Ms. Herbert.
You don’t want to miss her upcoming dates at The Green Room 42; Sept. 14, Oct. 20 and Nov. 23.
Photos: Magda Katz