Jenna Esposito Sings Connie Francis
Metropolitan Room, NYC, February 13, 2017
Reviewed by Alix Cohen for Cabaret Scenes
Jenna Esposito erupts onto the stage like a firecracker. “V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N” she sings; dips, points, steps, and enthusiastically Twists. (Songwriters: Connie Francis/Hank Hunter/Gary Weston). A fine, though unnecessarily amplified, five-piece band: Fortune Esposito (musical director/guitar/arranger), plus excellent back-up singers Kelly Esposito-Broelmann and Rob Langeder, fill the moderately sized club with enough spirited sound for The Hollywood Bowl.
“Stupid Cupid, you’re a real mean guy/I’d like to clip your wings so you can’t fly/…Hey hey, set me free/Stupid Cupid, stop picking on me…” (Howard Greenfield/Neil Sedaka). Like Francis’ original, Esposito soprano-squeaks the second syllable of “cupid.” She doesn’t imitate her honoree, however, but rather channels the top-charting ’50s pop vocalist. Frank Petrocelli’s sax swings out. (Later, the musician displays equal prowess with clarinet and flute.) “Lipstick on Your Collar” (George Goehring/Edna Lewis) offers the same effervescent mood. “Ya na na” back-up sings. The song ends with an arm pump.
Seven years ago, Esposito originated this show where it plays tonight. “I’m seven years older, I’ve got bangs and a husband,” she tells us, warmth emanating from her like breathing. Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero, aka Connie Francis, whom the vocalist has met and with whom she’s established a supportive relationship, had her first top 40 hit in 1958, with 35 more to follow before the late 1960s.
She almost didn’t make it. With her record label ready to walk, Francis’ father convinced the young singer to record an old-fashioned standard, “Who’s Sorry Now?” (Ted Snyder/Bert Kalmar/Harry Ruby), which catapulted her to American Bandstand. Esposito’s rendition showcases two-octave, single-syllable words and confident vibrato on loooong notes. She’s got the ’50s down.
We learn about Francis’ hits and misses, reasoning, romances and tragedies. Biography is integrated with economy and finesse. First love Bobby Darin was run off by her dominating father, but it was national heartthrob Frankie Avalon, about whom she sang “Frankie” (a commission to Sedaka/Greenfield). Esposito-Broelmann and Langeder cutely lean in to one another during this infectiously pleasing back-up. The performer employs a mid-word sob, then prevalent, ending with effectively spoken sentiment.
Tony Hatch, associated with Petula Clark’s hits, wrote Francis’ “Roundabout”: “I go round and round on the roundabout of love…,” which was welcomed by the contemporary adult market. It’s a swaying tune Esposito rightly takes down a notch. Jimmy Steward, Jr./Robert Mosely’s “If My Pillow Could Talk” is notable for Langeder’s surprising Frankie Valli soprano. Some performers have “bright voices.” Esposito’s could light Lower Manhattan.
Several songs, partially in Italian, nod to a successful album in Francis’ own language. These arrive too big, with the band almost drowning out Esposito’s formidable pipes. Emotional impact is dissipated. My single caveat with this show is the fact that volume hardly ever lets up, offering little variety and burying the performer’s invested feeling.
“Among My Souvenirs” (music by Lawrence Wright, lyric credited to Edgar Leslie, but reportedly sold to him by its actual author, Al Dubin), with Esposito senior’s skilled guitar (too loud), exhibits the vocalist’s unconditional commitment to performance. She gives all she’s got. The iconic “Where the Boys Are” (Sedaka/Greenfield) is filled with yearning. A honky-tonk/burlesque arrangement of “Send for My Baby” (Hy Heath/Fred Rose), which seems uncharacteristic of Francis, lets Esposito present sassy attitude on which she might base another of her shows.
Jenna Esposito is captivating. The show is well put together and great fun.
Also Featuring: David Crone (piano); Rob Broelmann (bass); Scott Morehouse (drums). The show is part of the New York Cabaret’s Greatest Hits series.