Reviewed by Stephen Mosher for Broadway World
A famous woman once said that the children are the future, and they are indeed, but let us not deny the importance of that which has come before these young people who will lead us all into a brave new world. The two inexorable sides of the coin belong together - the youngsters and those possessing of, shall we say, a more advanced glamor; that is why relationships like the one between 16-year-old Ava Nicole Frances and the ageless Charlo Crossley are so important, in life and in art. That which these two colleagues can teach and learn, between themselves or with an audience in the room, is beautiful, life-affirming, and thoroughly entertaining, and all of it can be found on their new CD MUTUAL ADMIRATION LIVE.
When Ava and Charlo met, they explain to the live audience, there was a connection between the two and from that grew a friendship and an artistic partnership, both of which yield much bounty. This recording made at Feinstein's at Vitello's captures the spirit of their association and both ladies' talent, with exceptional production from musical director Michael Collum & co., and cd editing/mixing/mastering by Miguelli Musica. Live recordings can be tricky, especially with two performers with rangey vocal techniques, and it is a testament to the musicians on the stage and the fingers on the mixing dials that the ladies' voices are neither lost nor overpowering at any time. This is a bold pairing and they deserve the caring touch being provided by their team. With an obligatory establishing opening duet out of the way, the two women part company so that each of them can have a six-song set before joining forces for their final portion of the act, and at no time does the listener feel like they are being cheated or bored by the show format. This is a skillfully assembled night of musical storytelling, thanks to director Frank Silletti, and cabaret lovers will get their time and money's worth from listening to the album.
Using music to share stories about their lives, these singers with bright, pleasant voices, good technique, and sweet harmonies, are funny while being genuine, cheeky while staying down-to-earth, and flashy while keeping it real. The stories shared during their (clearly rehearsed but) casual conversation with the audience are not life-altering - these aren't watershed moments of which they speak, they are normal events in the life of a female entertainer; it doesn't matter because Charlo and Ava are so delightful while chatting up the crowd that they might very well be talking about their last trip to the market or something they learned from a Youtube tutorial. The audience loves them, and so will newcomers hearing them for the first time on this CD. The chemistry between the two actresses definitely comes across during their time together, and the energy between each woman and the crowd is also palpable.
With Ava opening the show with music and rhetoric about life as a teenager and Charlo following her with reminiscences and tunes about the journey that brought her to this moment, it's like we are taking a chronological trip in the life of one woman (in a way we are), the end result being two sides of the female life experience, told by Ava and Charlo together.
For her portion of the show, Ms. Frances is all youthful optimism, teenage angst, and hopeful dreams, with her remarkably pretty voice melding to the styles of each composer as a thoughtful emotional connection weaves within lyrics that, clearly, resonate with the young woman. The songs from Pirate Queen, Hairspray, Heathers and Mean Girls are not only age-appropriate but authentic to Frances' aesthetic, showing versatility, efficacy, and acting chops, particularly when the material is character-driven. When taking on the pop smash "Beautiful" Ava Nicole proves she's got pipes, but a big song that comes from a big singer can often carry the ghost of that singer with it, getting in the way of the song itself. Ms. Frances might consider revisiting the hit from within her own experience, allowing the story to stay inside of herself, telling it from her point of view, not that of Christina Aguilera. The result will be much more effective if kept personal and within her control - not everything need be epic, even though other people make it so.
What is epic is Ms. Frances' closing number, a stunning mashup of "Over the Rainbow" and "Home" (see what she did there?) that might not work for every singer, but that is absolute perfection in this lady's hands. The former song (a song this writer never wants to hear unless it's a recording of Judy Garland) is performed with enormous tenderness, sublime sweetness, true heart, and touching wistfulness before segueing into the latter, with all the empowered, gospel-infused enormity people have come to expect, to require, to need from it. This medley is the magnum opus for which Ava Nicole Frances will come to be known, the song she will have to sing at every show, lest the crowd be devastated that she left it out.
In her remarks to the audience, Ava Nicole says she is proud to represent young people - but she isn't really representing everyone. She represents youth, and it's a good thing that young people, especially young women, have a role model, which she will be to those young women. But not all of those women have what she has. She can't represent all of them because she clearly has something special, whether it is the talent with which she was born or the tenacity that led her to a focus of study so strong that she has nurtured her talent to this point. One suspects it is a combination of the two. This doesn't come along every day.
Yielding the stage to her more seasoned co-star, Ava welcomes back Charlo Crossley, who will provide impeccable mentorship to Frances, as evidenced immediately by the fact that her prowess is showing, and it is dripping with jewels that look just like experience. Not just anyone can walk up on a stage and toss around a classic from The Great American Songbook with so smoothly balanced a mix of Broadway belt and jazz styling. Naturally, Crossley works with the likes of Gershwin, Mercer, and Arlen, but when she drops down into the pocket for her second number "Green Dolphin Street" it's hard not to notice that Charlo Crossley is just a diva. This is a song that has been sung by many an artist but here is a rendition of the classic that is bright, uplifting, flamboyant, and exciting, with Crossley welcoming to the set some impressively enjoyable solos from the band. It's actually a little hard to not hit the "back" button and play the track twice, but she's so dang good you just have to keep moving forward and, boy, is it worth it.
Charlo's set involves some seriously good music but what is particularly enjoyable is listening to the conversation with the audience, a chat that includes the sentence, "I won't go into the hideous details, some of which are very funny." Well, Charlo Crossley must put together a show of only storytelling immediately! This woman is so frank, so funny, so fun that the people will show up in droves to hear her talk about life, her life, and all the lessons she has learned along the way - she's real, totally engaging, and oh, so relatable. Listen to the album, you'll see.
Before asking Ava Nicole back to the stage, Charlo Crossley makes a nice, smooth transition from a '60s pop song that the audience coos over the moment they hear the opening notes, to a medley of standards that everyone in the world knows. What makes the pairing of the two numbers so perfect is that "To Sir, With Love" represents all of us at that precipice upon which we stand just before adulthood, and "Drinking Again/One For My Baby" is a story we can neither tell nor relate to without the passage of a painful number of years. It's like a musical Yin and Yang, flawlessly orchestrated to knock the listener from delicious pillar to delirious post.
Once Frances is back on the stage with Crossley, it's a smooth ride into the station, with duets so famous that the audience reacts to them before the ladies sing, and the ladies do sing them so well. The highlight of the joint session, though, is the two HAIRSPRAY alumni having some fun with one song from the famous score and moving hearts with what is, unquestionably, the most important song from the show, especially in these complicated times. It's a powerful and memorable way to end their show and a track from the album that will get a lot of play on your device.
Charlo and Ava are an odd couple, make no mistake. Yet they are a right couple. That is because the world is filled with odd couples, with relationships that shouldn't work because of one thing or another, but do. These girls, these women, belong together as friends, as artists, as mutual teacher and student. It is so important, pairings like this, because we all need mentors, we all need newness, and each of these women, these artists, will learn from one another, will grow, will thrive. It is especially valuable for women to inspire one another and to lift each other into the light. With their work on the stage and in the recording studio, Ava and Charlo will not just mentor each other, they will mentor from afar the other women who see that which they are creating, and who will follow their lead.
And probably a couple of the menfolk as well.
Charlo Crossley Ava Nicole Frances Mutual Admiration Live is a 2020 release on the Daddios Productions Label and can be found with varying release dates at iTunes, Apple Music, Amazon, Spotify, and most other streaming services.