By Elliot Zweibach for Cabaret Scenes
July 28, 2015
Amari bears a striking resemblance to Radner, and it was that resemblance that encouraged friends to suggest she do a show about her. “People have compared me to Gilda my entire life,” Amari said. “In fact, everyone has called me Rosanne Rosannadanna for years.
“I fell in love with Gilda way back in 1975. I’ve always loved her as a performer and a human being, especially when I read her book, It’s Always Something, and about her battle with ovarian cancer. And, over the years, whenever I’d be doing some other show, someone would come up to me and tell me I reminded them of Gilda Radner — every night!
“It just kept coming up, and I finally got the chance to create this show in 2011 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I used to live and where Gilda’s Club was producing this huge festival called Gilda’s LaughFest to celebrate her life.”
Titled You Make Me Laugh: A Love Song to Gilda Radner, it’s scheduled to open in New York on October 11 — 40 years to the day since Radner made her debut on Saturday Night Live, Amari pointed out — with a repeat performance on Oct. 17. It was originally produced by Clifford Bell, with musical direction by Shelly Markham, special material by Shelly Goldstein and with Andrea Marcovicci as creative consultant.
Amari has been performing You Make Me Laugh… around the country for the past four years and donating a portion of the proceeds to either a local Gilda’s Club or another cancer-support organization. “That’s the dearest part to me every time I do the show,” she said. “It’s not always a lot of money, but we’re raising awareness and doing what Gilda espoused — laughing and talking and singing, even in the face of cancer.
“You can’t talk about Gilda without talking about her battle with cancer, and the show manages to do that in a way that is light and funny and serious and poignant all at the same time.”
Cabaret Scenes said as much in a 2011 review: “[D]espite knowing how Radner’s life ended, the show is never maudlin. Amari keeps the tone light and bubbly and humorous and uplifting, much as Radner did, even in her darkest days.”
Amari said she’s very proud of the show — “more so than almost anything I’ve ever done. Artistically it is just a perfectly crafted show, and I believe we’ve incorporated songs and material that seamlessly explain and tell the story of Gilda’s life and career. I have such a passion about her — as a performer and as someone who battled cancer so publicly. In fact, when I perform it, it’s like sitting in my living room with people — it’s that easy to just sing and talk and laugh with the audience.”
She said her favorite part “is hearing people just howl out loud at some of the patter, so much of which comes right from Gilda’s book. Let’s face it — she was a funny, funny woman!
“The other part I enjoy is when people come up to me afterward and talk about their own involvement with cancer, or being a cancer survivor, and how good it felt to laugh and then cry. We all have people in our lives affected by cancer. In fact, both of my parents passed away from cancer. So I don’t get upset or sad about that part of the show — just maybe more melancholy. And I truly look forward to simply sharing Gilda’s journey with others. It keeps her alive for so many of us who loved her for so long.”
Amari said she’s been performing since grade school. “And singing with choirs since fourth grade fueled my passion and my ability for singing harmony and enunciating and learning how to blend, and that’s stayed with me in everything I do. Half the time, my ear goes right to the harmony line of a song.”
Being on-stage comes easily, Amari said, though she’s socially awkward and a bit reserved off-stage, she noted. “But when I’m up there singing, that’s where I feel most at home and most like myself. People are always surprised that quiet, almost-shy Francesca busts out and explodes on stage as a storyteller and a funny chatterbox!”
Amari’s evolution as a performer “has everything to do with the art form of cabaret,” she said. “For years and years I wanted to be the best singer and have the best voice, but I never was able to achieve either. I spent a lot of time doing theater and auditioning for parts that I could do vocally, but for which — being not quite 5-feet tall and curvy — I was not the right fit physically. But, once I started going to cabaret shows, I learned I didn’t have to have the best voice — I simply had to tell the story and be true to the lyrics.”
The first cabaret performer she saw was Barbara Brussell, “and her show was transformative for me,” Amari recalled. “She mesmerized me, and I realized that’s sort of what I’d been doing for years without realizing it was ‘cabaret.’
“It also made me realize I didn’t need to be wasting my time trying to do theater when I was never the right type, but that I could create my own shows with songs that spoke to me. That’s when I started searching for and finding great cabaret artists — people like Andrea Marcovicci, Karen Mason, Susannah McCorkle, Nancy LaMott and Laurie Beechman — people I fell in love with and by whom I was highly influenced.”
As part of her search, Amari participated in the first two seasons of The Art of Cabaret Master Class at Steamboat Springs, Colorado, “and that was a career changer for me,” she recalled. “I became a much more relaxed, comfortable singer, and I feel like I’ve blossomed as a performer as a result.”
According to Amari, she’s always been “one of those ‘let’s put on a show’ kind of performers who created and self-produced musical revues for herself or small groups. She was part of a vocal trio in a show she wrote called Boogie Woogie Babies — about the music of the Andrews Sisters and World War II — and two sequels, Boogie, Beehives & Beyond and Boogie Down Broadway, that resulted in two CDs.
Her first solo show was called Secretly Square: Guilty Pleasure Songs, which debuted at the Metropolitan Room in 2007, directed by Barry Kleinbort, with Chris Denny as musical director — two of the people she met at the Steamboat Springs master class. She subsequently performed the show in Los Angeles, Chicago and Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Besides the Gilda show, Amari said she is also performing Songbirds: The Women in My Head, a tribute show about her favorite girl singers and songwriters. She also has two duo shows: one with Gilmore Rizzo called A Couple of Swells, and another with Darci Daniels called Luck Be a Lady: Let Us Blow on Your Dice. She also created a show for tourists in Palm Springs with Daniels, Michael Holmes and Charles Herrera called Palm Springs JUMP! — a tribute to many of the stars who have lived or worked in the resort area, including Sonny Bono, whom Amari gets to play.
Amari said she relishes performing the Gilda show. “I do the cabaret thing knowing I won’t make much money for myself, but as long as I can pay the music director and get the publicity out and cover those costs, that’s a good thing and I just go on, knowing I’ll be donating part of what I earn.
“But it’s the least I can do to keep this show out there touching others and spreading the gospel of Gilda. And I’m just tickled that I get the chance to introduce it to some New York audiences.”