Review: Barbara Cook’s Spotlight: Frances Ruffelle at The Kennedy Center

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Totally “lopping –the –top” off conventional cabaret concert conventions, Broadway star and musical artist Frances Ruffelle presented a radically deconstructed, immersive and jazz-infused  “tone poem” to life and love last evening at The Kennedy Center’s intimate Terrace Theater. From the opening strains of Ruffelle’s stunning voice coming from off-stage (even before she had made her entrance), I had a feeling that I might be in for a unique concert concept and my intuition was not proven wrong.

Frances Ruffelle. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.
Frances Ruffelle. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

The entire ninety-minute set was radically de-constructed from the usual expectations and manipulation of audience response. Instead, the Tony Award-winning Ms. Ruffelle (Les Misérables) eschewed the standard comic patter and set explications/introductions of each musical number to present an organic, free-flowing and synergistic approach that was utterly unique and challenged any preconceived perceptions of the audience in a positive and spontaneous way.

Backed up by the top-notch musical direction and piano of Jude Obermuller and a superior, innovative three-piece instrumental ensemble, Ruffelle is a Brit who expertly channeled the erotic sensuality and playfulness of several French love songs, re-interpreted classic songs with superior (eccentrically appealing and highly variegated) jazzy arrangements. Ruffelle gave glimpses into her life’s experiences via very compact, amusing, and —almost elusive—anecdotal vignettes. (Certainly, Ruffelle’s cabaret concert was as radical in conception as the Mandy Patinkin /Patti LuPone concert that I reviewed a few years ago).

“L’Un Vers L’Autre” (a song written for Eponine that originally did not make it into Les Misérables was performed by Ruffelle with impeccable French phrasing.

The song “Lonely Night In Paris” was beautifully sung with a repetitive refrain that enhanced the haunting mood of this song.

“Whiskey Bar” showed Ruffelle at her most uninhibited as she sang of the impetuous desire to imbibe. Ruffelle’s voice has a conversational lilt to it that embellishes every nuance of the human condition.

Ruffelle often knocked down the fourth wall of the stage and either reached down towards the audience or—–in the event of her next number—-even walked right into the audience. Ruffelle playfully lead the wonderful singer Rowan John from his seat for a haunting, evocative cover of Lee Hazlewood’s “Paris Summer”.

A highlight was Ruffelle’s rendition of “If You Love Me.” Ruffelle’s interpretation was delivered with a forceful, driving insistence that propelled the fatalistic thrust of this beloved song.

“I Say Yeh-Yeh” and “Piano Practice” were bouncy, breezy diversions delivered in such a carefree and nonchalant style —yet Ruffelle’s masterly direct and professional connection to the heart of these songs could not be concealed.

A very intriguing musical arrangement enhanced a very seductive, coy cover of the classic “I Got Rhythm.” Jazzy tones permeated –then, almost imperceptibly, a subtle military beat came up from behind the pounding beat.

A comic, novelty approach encased Sonny Bono’s “Bang! Bang!”. Ruffelle delivered this song an ironic and callow approach that worked marvelously well.

Comic irony continued with Ms. Ruffelle singing of her numerous affairs with an air of sophisticated resignation in the antic “A Girl Could Use a Dog.”

Ruffelle left the stage for a change of attire and her wonderfully inventive group of musicians performed a lengthy and inspired instrumental jam session of the previously performed “I Say Yeh-Yeh.” Bravos to Tim Basom on Guitar, Samuel Zerna on Bass, Jake Robinson on Drums and –of course—Music Director Jude Obermuller on Piano.

“Gotta Move” (made so famous by Barbra Streisand) was given a totally new jazz interpretation by Ruffelle that really swung and rocked the house!

“Alright With Me” was sung with a jazzy sense of abandon and freedom by Ruffelle.

Ruffelle capped the evening by re-interpreting her Tony Award-winning song from  Les Misérables—namely, “On My Own”– in a very languid and jazz-tinged style. In her usual audacious manner, Ruffelle sang a large portion of the song standing on top of the piano!

David Friscic and Frances Ruffelle.
David Friscic and Frances Ruffelle. Photo by Thomas Goodwin.

A ravishing, pulsating rendition of Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” was tailored to Ruffelle’s distinctive and unique style. Ruffelle tugged at the heartstrings in this classic song.

The epic narrative song “Jimmy Brown” was excitingly sung in a counterpoint duet with the sublime Ruffelle and the lovely soprano voice of Ms. Claire Ortuzar. A definitive highlight and crowd-pleaser!

As the concert concluded, the definitive verve of Ms. Ruffelle, the radical format of the cabaret, and the ultra-innovative jazzy musical arrangements all coalesced to create an evening of subversively creative musical daring. Kudos to Frances Ruffelle and company for bringing this exciting concert to The Kennedy Center!

I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Ruffelle after the performance and she was just as refreshing in person as on stage.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Frances Ruffelle appeared as part of the Barbara Cook’s Spotlight series on Friday, March 25, 2016 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theatre- 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For future Kennedy Center events, go to their calendar of events.

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David Friscic
David has always had a passionate interest in the arts from acting in professional dinner theatre and community theatre to reviewing film and local theatre in college to making numerous treks to New York City to indulge his interest in live theatre. An enthusiastic interest in writing has shown itself in a BA in English/Education and an MA in English Literature. Taken together, these two interests have culminated in the logical conclusion of writing for an arts blog. David moved up and down the East Coast due to his father's job at General Electric and this has helped him to perceive the world in a very open way. After his schooling, David taught in Catholic school systems for awhile and, then, spent three years in the seminary with two years at Catholic University studying Theology and one year in a practicuum working at a church in New York State. David currently works at the National Science Foundation as a Technical Information Specialist for the Office of Polar Programs and has had the great opportunity to go to Antarctica twice and Greenland once in support of the research community. He enjoys living in Bethesda and has taken courses at the Writer's Center. David enjoys swimming, traveling, reading, and working on committees at his condo. His major interest, however, is the arts and all it encompasses---from symphony, to film, to museum treks to live theatre. He counts having lunch with Lillian Gish and meeting Lily Tomlin, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Liza Minnelli and Sandy Dennis as some of the more exciting encounters of his life.