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Performance review: Charlo Crossley & Ava Nicole Frances

Reviewed by Elliot Zwiebach for Cabaret Scenes

Brava!  Brava!

The highest plaudits go to two enchanting, entertaining, and very different women who have formed their own mutual admiration society and have taken it on the road for the first time. 

Charlo Crossley is a seasoned veteran who acknowledges five decades of performing, and Ava Nicole Frances (formerly Ava Vukic) is a virtual newcomer at age 15, but has chops to rival most singers of any age. Though their styles and stage personas could not be more different, they were triumphant separately and together—Crossley expressing the certitude of having lived the emotions she sings about, Frances offering an aspirational optimism about what’s ahead.

Crossley is a dynamic singer with an outsized stage personality; she’s confident and brassy, commanding the room with a powerful vocal instrument and an innate warmth that holds an audience’s attention and makes it feel instantly comfortable.

Opting for a series of standards with a slight jazz inflection, her set included a strong, up-tempo “Lady Be Good” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” (both by George and Ira Gershwin), a sweet, reflective “Green Dolphin Street” (Bronislau Kaper/Ned Washington), and a thoughtful medley of “Drinking Again” (Johnny Mercer/Doris Tauber) and “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” (Mercer/Harold Arlen) that left the audience sighing. There was also a look back to her younger self with “To Sir with Love” (Don Black/Marc London), and an expression of life’s joys in a powerful combo of “Sunny Side of the Street” (Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields) and “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” (Ray Henderson/Lew Brown).

Frances is an amazing singer who displays a joyous, bubbly confidence and an ability to communicate the emotions of her songs with a skill well beyond her years.  Her voice is pure, and she can take a listener’s breath away with the sheer beauty of the sounds she produces.

She focused her solo set on the challenges of being a teenager, selecting material that reflects her feelings about growing as a woman and hoping to change the world.  She opened with the aspirational “Everyday” (Tom Kitt), then expressed her pride in being a young woman with a readiness to fight injustice—“though I still have to finish high school,” she noted—with an intense, powerful “Woman” (Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg,  with English lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and John Dempsey), from The Pirate Queen.

Having played Tracy Turnblad in her school’s production of Hairspray, Frances was superb in a wide-eyed take on “I Can Hear the Bells” (Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman), and she delivered a spine-tingling, emotion-packed wallop with a medley of “Over the Rainbow” (Arlen/Yip Harburg) and “Home” from The Wiz.

Despite their different styles, Crossley and Frances proved to be a perfect blendship on a delightful “You’re Just in Love” (Irving Berlin) and the stunning mashup of “Get Happy” (Arlen/Ted Koehler) and “Happy Days Are Here Again” (Jack Yellen/Milton Ager), with Frances offering a smooth take on the Garland song and Crossley keeping it warm and subdued on the Streisand portion.

With both women being a part of what they called “the ‘Spray’ family” (Crossley having played Motormouth Maybelle in the national tour of Hairspray), they ended the night with a medley from the show, with Frances taking the lead on “Good Morning Baltimore,” the two women offering a sweet back-and-forth on “You’re Timeless to Me,” and Crossley showing off her full vocal power on “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

They had super backing from music director Michael Collum on piano, Kirsh on bass, and Tom Bowe on drums.  The show was directed by Frank Stilletti.


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