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With Seán Martinfield

Seán Martinfield
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

Broadway Stars - Way-Off Broadway

By Seán Martinfield

April 25, 2006

Two notable Broadway singing talents were in town this past week-end performing within a block of each other. Popular Mezzo-Soprano and 4-time Tony winner Audra McDonald was at Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, accompanied by bass player and husband Peter Donovan, pianist and music director Ted Sperling, and percussionist Sean McDaniel. A block down Van Ness Avenue, tenor Franc D'Ambrosio along with pianist and music director Chuck Larkin were winding up a 3-week engagement at the New Conservatory Theatre. San Francisco theatre goers know Mr. D'Ambrosio from his more than 4-year engagement in the title role of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, ending in 1998 as The City's longest running Broadway musical. Since then many admirers have asked the question, "Whatever became of…?" For all of you New Yorkers or those heading to Manhattan this week-end, Franc and Audra will be performing there as well - but not on the same venue and probably not sharing the same cab. Saturday night (April 29th) Ms. McDonald will be at Carnegie Hall. She asked our indulgence in "previewing" some of her material. The following night at 7 PM, Mr. D'Ambrosio will be repeating his Broadway song list at Joe's Pub, a cozy cabaret at 425 Lafayette near E. 4th.

For some time, the term "versatile" has been frequently directed at both performers, generally targeting their all-around vocal pleasantries and inherent resourcefulness within a variety of performance arenas. Both having entered the public eye around the same period, what they have shared in common with this description is that each has dabbled with classical literature, both have strong on-or-off Broadway associations, each includes popular American Standards during solo appearances, and as actors their varying opportunities have embraced a challenging range of emotional expression and character development. A significant difference is that whereas Audra McDonald has been either the inspirational Muse or promoter of such new composers as Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, Jennifer Giering, John LaChiusa, and Ricky Ian Gordon - Franc D'Ambrosio furnished new inspiration, class, impeccable finesse, and enduring vocal stability to one already established pop-operetta, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. But last Friday and Saturday, their respective performances and performing venues brought a screeching halt to any previously shared critical vocabulary and changed the keys on the dressing rooms marked with a star.

Even with her quartet of Antoinette Perry Awards, stacks of binders filled with lavish praise, list of appearances with all the major American orchestras - proudly counting Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas among her chief admirers - there has always been a disturbing iota of something missing in her voice and her presentation; a gnawing question about exactly WHAT you are listening to and where to absolutely hang on with certainty. Never an issue with her dedication and commitment - just, stuff - such as how to zone-in or stretch the antenna toward something not exactly definitive in the Operatic World / always around some other block than where Pop-Belter Divas such as Celine Dion hang out / and in a nebulous league where the reigning Queens of Gospel might peek in and whisper, "Nice try." Whatever THAT was - got kicked to the curb on Saturday night, and those of us lucky enough to be in the Symphony Hall watched The Truth of Audra Ann McDonald come flying out of the closet finally and forever! (So typical for many of The City's visitors!) From the highest ping to the lowest rumble, and all the intermingling going around that warm and inviting middle, the shimmering vibrato - it is her voice and her voice alone that now sets the Standard for the Classic (as in, "Time-Honored") American Mezzo-Soprano. In addition to those now writing for her, more will come. The Mezzo that inspired a CARMEN out of Bizet; the heart-breaking poignancy of Helen Morgan for Jerome Kern's SHOW BOAT; and (reaching into another dusty file) the lush phrasing and lusty tones of Jane ("With A Song In My Heart") Froman - it is Audra McDonald's voice that will be kicking the ass of tomorrow's budding composer. She has firmly secured her status alongside the Great Ones. Her appearance at Carnegie Hall this week-end may very well go down as one of the greatest One-Night-Stands since Judy Garland stepped onto its stage and re-aligned the Universe back in 1965.

I also count myself among those lucky enough to have seen and heard Franc D'Ambrosio as "The Phantom". The performance I saw was a year into his record-breaking ownership of the role. He was brilliant and I will never forget it. I regret that his voice wasn't dubbed-in for the recent film, thus, preserving his and the musical's artistic integrity for all time. I even remember back when a local interviewer suggested that Franc D'Ambrosio must certainly be the most sought-after party guest in all of San Francisco. He replied that to do the role justice, to sing it intact eight-shows-a-week, required a more ascetic manner of living. What a guy, I thought.

Maybe he should have gotten out more often. Today, his younger counterparts will look at this list of songs called "Frank D'Ambrosio's Broadway" and ask - "Aren't these, like, tired and, like, way over-done?" Someone has to respond, "Yes and yes." I hang my head and regret that it has to be me.

Mr. D'Ambrosio, with all of his honorable mentions and loyal fans, trails in as the Also-Ran. I will give him his due, however - he has a couple of wonderful high-notes that require certain spheres of steel to produce. I am certain he works his voice diligently to keep them in tow and, hopefully, maintains the kind of healthy and regimented life-style needed to fulfill this year's scheduled appearances.

"Lounge Lizard" is that horrid and derogatory term musical theatre enthusiasts reserve for finger-snapping wannabes oiling and cooing their way into quasi-jazz arrangements of "Almost Like Being In Love" - the very definition of "overdone song" and/or "kiss of death" - especially when it opens The Show. But, that is what he does and will continue to do for the rest of this so-called Tour and the promotion of the accompanying DVD and CD. ("Who did you say this guy was?") The attacks gets even more derisive when such cornball crap is then forced into a medley with "Botch-A-Me", a girl's song from the '50s and huge hit for Favorite Girl Singer, Rosemary Clooney. Fast on the heels of that - can you guess? - "Mack The Knife". With two fingers up, I am drowning in bewilderment.

He avoided anything classical, including the opera CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA, a sequence from which was pieced into 1990's GODFATHER: PART III. In the film, he plays "Anthony Vito Corleone", the aspiring opera-singer son of the Godfather (Al Pacino). With an offer the opera company cannot refuse, does the young "Anthony" sing the role of "Turridu" - one of those excessively demanding roles which, in the Real World of Opera, is the territory of VIP tenors sporting the very biggest of guns. Plot-wise, only under such pressure would an inexperienced singer and not-yet-ready voice be assigned to such a role - and, what with Daddy's blood running into the streets come the opera's final curtain, local Critics are mercifully spared a printed review. Thus, whether today or at the time of the film's premier, it is a strange compliment - requiring a load of footnotes - to state that D'Ambrosio's voice was perfect for the part.

With his short-grey hair and handsomely chiseled features, he is looking very distinguished at 44 - except when he knits his eyebrows together and scrunches his nose on any word with the vowel "E". Franc keeps trim hopping around with one-night stands in cabarets, churches and school auditoriums. Nothing wrong with that! The problem is that he has taken on the exaggerated persona of an Italian caricature: "he tawks like dis." The whole show. Except when he pulls out a precarious Irish-type falsetto for "Bring Him Home" and "Danny Boy". ("Not bad, eh? For an Italian?") Ah, Franc, Franc….

The intimate and comfortable setting of San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre must have been a most welcomed change. The NCT is located just a block away from the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House a few yards away on the other side of the street. But for Franc D'Ambrosio, at this stage of the game and with this tired act, these two musical houses are on the other side of the moon.




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