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BWW Reviews: 54 BELOW CELBRATES WILDHORN's 'Frank and Friends' is Bluesy, Jazz Perfection

Frank Wildhorn

Continuing their weeklong celebration of American pop and musical theater composer Frank Wildhorn, 54 BELOW kicked off the "Frank and Friends" portion of 54 BELOW Celebrates Frank Wildhorn concerts last night. Unlike the first two concerts, these concerts feature Wildhorn at the piano as a handful of his friends, new and old, take the stage to sing his classic hits (and even a couple of new songs too). Yet, keeping true to the cabaret setting, many of the songs were re-orchestrated to be bluesy, jazz masterpieces that perfectly filled the snug venue and gave the numbers a new life.

Friday's concerts featured the talents of Leslie Odom, Jr., Janet Dacal, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Adrienne Warren, and Jane Monheit. To kick of the evening, Warren, Raver-Lampman, and Dacal performed a saucy and high-energy, Latin jazz rendition of "Havana" from Wildhorn's work-in-progress Havana. That was immediately followed by a 1920s jazz take on the number "Big Time" by Raver-Lampman, Monheit, and Dacal, which showed off the speakeasy/killer-diller-diva vocal stylings we normally associate with musicals like Chicago. However, the show really began when Odom, Jr. tore the roof off the basement venue with a resplendent jazz ballad version of "I'll Forget You." This brilliant re-imagining of the riveting 11 o'clock number from The Scarlet Pimpernel showcased the genius of both the performer and the composer, giving audiences their first delectable surprise of the evening.

The program continued with a rousing rendition of "It's No Secret Anymore" sung by Dacal. Following that Warren delivered a heartfelt, bluesy, R&B version of "What I Do Best," which was a song Wildhorn originally wrote for Whitney Houston. Warren took the audience's breath away with her emotionality and lustrous jazz timbre, which seemed inspired by Nina Simone, on the piece. Next, Monheit enchanted with "Why Do People Fall In Love" from Havana. Then Raver-Lampman blew the audience away with a sultry and masterfully belt infused version of the infectiously fun number "One Bad Habit." The crowd couldn't contain their enthusiasm, cheering and clapping during her spectacular performance.

Odom, Jr. cooled the audience down with a touching and heartbreaking version of "Sarah" from The Civil War. But, David Mann on the saxophone got our blood racing with his astonishing opening solo on "Amor Perdido" from Havana, which was sung by Odom, Jr. and Monheit. Monheit followed this performance with a lush rendition of "Two People" from Mata Hari at the Moulin Rouge, delivering stirring vocals that were reminiscent of Linda Eder. Radiating mirth and joy, Dacal warmed our hearts with a part English and part Spanish version of "The Gift." Next, Warren and Raver-Lampman debuted an up-tempo, sexy jazz duet version of "The Mad Hatter" from Wonderland, which earned enthusiastic cheers and applause.

Following that performance, Warren sang a bluesy version of "Where Are You Now," skillfully showcasing her impressive and alluring R&B belt. Then Odom, Jr. stole the show with a sterling jazz version of "Once Upon a Dream." Monheit showed off the power and majesty in her voice with a passionate take on "Woman In His Arms" from Camille Claudel. Next, Warren debuted Wildhorn's latest pop composition "Free," giving the song the earnest sincerity of Demi Lovato's "Skyscraper," and immaculately lodging the catchy tune in our hearts and brains. Dacal followed this with an exciting version of "Finding Wonderland," perfectly embracing the spirit of the song and lifting the audience out of the doldrums of their lives. Raver-Lampman closed the show with the best version of "A New Life" I have ever heard and successfully added incomparable hope to the heights that Dacal left us with.

Wildhorn led the band from the piano. David Mann played the saxophone, flute, and other woodwinds with dexterous skill. Julia Adamy on bass and Clint de Ganon on drums deftly gave the music its rhythm and drive.

There are still two more chances to catch the "Frank and Friends" concerts during the 54 BELOW Celebrates Frank Wildhorn series. Both of the remaining performances are tonight: one at 7:00 p.m. and one at 9:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.54below.com or call (646) 476-3551. Also, the set list and performers are subject to change, so audiences who venture out to the remaining two shows tonight may be in for more surprises.


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