Review by Sam Waite
Existing in a delicate world somewhere between concert and theatrical performance, song cycle and musical workshop, live concept album and jukebox song cycle, there is Frankie & Beausy. For one night only, ahead of planned New York shows later this year, this unique piece of work was staged at Crazy Coqs, downstairs within Brasserie Zedel. Created by its stars, Tony Award winner Frances Ruffelle and current West End leading man Norman Bowman, this is an ambitious project that could have fallen flat or been a cheesy mess if not for the capable and creative minds involved.
The story is simple enough – Frankie is a musical theatre actress working on Broadway, and Beausy is her soon-to-be husband, a musical aficionado she met and fell for on Valentine’s Day. We follow them through a charming courtship, wedded bliss, marital strife, through to the inevitable reconciliation and proclamation of continuing love. It’s sweet, it’s easily digestible, and it allows the pair to show off their comedic and vocal chops.
Ruffelle is perhaps the better known of the two performers – she’s proved her musical theatre abilities in Les Mis (originating the role of Eponine on both sides of the Atlantic), Chicago, and The Wild Party, and represented the UK in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. Her throaty, passionate voice is capable of both power and a heart wrenching delicacy, and despite its husk has a girlish, youthful quality that lends itself beautifully to her breezy, charming portrayal of Frankie. Her voice is ever so slightly shaking on The Sound of Music’s “Something Good”, but her emotional range mean that she could miss every note and still enthral a crowd.
Bowman, Mamma Mia!’s current Sam Carmichael and another Les Mis alum, has a rich, warm voice which fills the room with ease and a deeply impressive vocal range. While his chemistry with Ruffelle was natural and easy, both complimenting each other in the duets, I found myself hoping he would record Maury Yeston’s “Unusual Way” (from the musical Nine) as a solo piece as soon as possible. A natural comedian, Bowman had a great deal of fun with the adjusting of his kilt to avoid giving the crowd a different kind of show, and his emotive moments brought a real delicacy to the character of Beausy.
The myriad of songs – mined from both popular music and the world of theatre and film – have been arranged by David Barber and musical director Ryan MacKenzie. McKenzie, who recently appeared alongside Christina Bianco in her shows at the Menier Chocolate Factory, plays beautifully and is involved momentarily in the storytelling when he quips that the two stars ought to get on with the next song. He has an all-too-brief solo, plaintive and spellbinding, before moving into “Unusual Way.”
Joining MacKenzie are a pair of talented instrumentalists – drummer Nick Anderson and cellist Kate Shortt. Both play exceptionally well and help to fill out the arrangements, giving a full, textured sound despite the small number of instruments actually being played. Accompaniment also comes, albeit briefly, from a singular bongo rapped on by Ruffelle, and a triangle struck by Bowman. There’s a fun, makeshift feeling to this show – performed for only its third and fourth time in this one evening – and a genuine sense of comradery between everyone involved.
Paul Baker, the show’s director, has helped shape his stars’ ideas and song choices into a fast-moving, easily digestible hour and change of entertainment. When a verse had to be re-attempted following a flub – a section of Sondheim’s “The Little Things You Do Together” was skipped over, with a line essential to Frankie & Beausy’s narrative bypassed in the process – the breezy tone set by Baker’s work made it easy for the likable performers to explain and correct their gaff. Beaming from the back of the room, Paul Baker was clearly as charmed by this creation as the rest of us, and obviously shared the collaborative spirit and willingness to see what works and what doesn’t.
A double act who could run with this kind of show for decades, Frances Ruffelle and Norman Bowman bounce marvellously off one another and bring real mirth to the kind of old-fashioned humour that might be cringe-inducing in the hands of lesser artists. So different in their tonality and technique, their voices blend with a surprising ease and seamlessness, and juxtapose each other nicely. Ruffelle may have had some small (and quite possibly deliberate) shakiness to her “Something Good”, but her raw, deeply felt delivery of “The Man That Got Away” was an immaculate demonstration of her vocal and acting abilities, making use of her entire spectrum of talents. Bowman, on the other hand, paired his comedic prowess with a classic leading man voice – simply put, it’s easy to see why Frankie would fall for Beausy on sight, and vice versa.
The Crazy Coqs crowd were utterly captivated by Frances Ruffelle & Norman Bowman as Frankie & Beausy (though perhaps breathless if they’d had to say the title out loud) and I have no doubt future audiences will receive it equally as warmly. A fine display of talent and the coming together of elements that on paper seem so disparate and like they would never come together, by the time they close with The Proclaimers’ “500 Miles” (before another pop song as an encore, but no more spoilers from me!) I challenge even the harshest cynic to not be taken in by this audacious, utterly delightful show.
Following this one-night engagement, Frankie & Beausy next plays at 54 Below in New York City, with plans underway for a UK return.