Club Review: Ryan Frostig’s “Higher Love! A Pop Fantasia on Queer Themes”

September 18, 2022 | By

In Higher Love! A Pop Fantasia on Queer Themes, Ryan Frostig (a likeable, energetic, promising singer) saddled himself with a show that was as overwrought and overthought as its title. It was more of a theatre piece than a cabaret show, with big, amorphous ideas that, unfortunately, never achieved any real substance.  All the coming-of-age/growing-up boxes were checked—questioning choices, finding a home, looking for love, rejecting love, realizing that the answers were there all along, celebrating the realization—but they were all presented in broad strokes with an unfortunate lack of specificity and personal story so there was nothing especially “gay” about the evening except for the performer. The premise was a young gay man reviewing his life through an internal dialogue with two omniscient, awkwardly wisecracking voices, or guides, or angels, or something, performed by director/ music director Kyle Branzel and backup vocalist Natalyee Randall.  Their combined enthusiasm worked to make the journey of self-discovery clichés involving, but it still failed. 

Ryan Frostig  (Photo: Noah Fecks)

On the plus side, there was an adventurous program of songs, inventively arranged by Branzel and played quite well by Marco Pana on bass, Nicole DeMaio on sax, and Dane Scozarri on drums in addition to the music director on piano.  When Frostig simply sang a verse or chorus, he revealed the engaging vocalist he could be, if he had stood still long enough to concentrate on his singing and hadn’t felt the need to move constantly in jumpy, jagged, awkward “choreography,” for lack of a better word.  Not only were the moves amateurishly executed, but the physical activity interfered with his pitch, his phrasing, and his tone. It was perhaps a misguided attempt to mask perceived vocal limitations with constant motion, but instead it accomplished the opposite. Constantly jumping up and down and dramatically turning his back to the room soon became irritating. Pointless leaps into the audience (and into darkness, thanks to surprisingly poor lighting) made matters even worse. 

Still, Frostig’s personality and good will and delight at being on stage remained constant as well. Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut to the Feeling” was a terrific opener, or was until the dancing wounded it.  One of the highlights of the night was a mash-up of “Always Something There to Remind Me” and “Say a Little Prayer” (both by Burt Bacharach, Hal David) transformed into a declaration of love for New York City. The arrangement was fantastic and the singing so focused that it overcame, or at least fought to a draw, the frenzied movement. I wanted to shout, “Just calm down and sing!” 

Natalie Randall  (Photo: Noah Fecks)

“Little Bird” (Annie Lennox), “I Drove All Night” (Billy Steinberg, Tom Kelly), “Paper Bag” (Fiona Apple), and “Rain on Me” (Lady Gaga, BloodPop, Ariana Grande, Matthew Burns, Nija Charles, Rami Yacoub, Martin Bresso, Alexander Ridha) all gave hints of what the show might have been if it had better served its star. Unfortunately, he connected only sporadically, seeming as interested in creating the frenzy on stage as he was in telling the stories.  Randall took center stage in a solo for “Proud” (Heather Small, Peter-John Vettese) and while she scorched the stage with her fiery vocal, I was distracted by the music stand which held the lyrics to which she kept referring; I wish that she had chosen to memorize her big number—it was just one, after all.  Also, it was not clear whether she was singing this as herself, or as her spirit guide role, or as the waitress serving him chocolate chip pancakes in a scene in a diner on the road. Frostig’s most successful singing occurred in a sort of duet with Branzel leading into a rousing finale provided by “Higher Love” (Steve Winwood, Will Jennings), in which the abandon and non-stop movement might have worked if it had not already been squandered and done to death throughout the show. The night ended with black activist/preacher Carl Bean’s “I Was Born This Way” (Chris Spierer, Bunny Jones) which had been a major influence on Lady Gaga; the music was undeniably thrilling, as it had been all night, but the release and triumph that should have filled the room never materialized. 

In considering why this show went so wrong so often, one red flag that jumped out—the music director also served as the director. These two tasks are completely different elements in any show and while not diametrically opposed to each other, the proper performance of one means that the other comes up short.  While Branzel’s arrangements, conducting, and playing were exemplary, the direction consistently missed the mark. The lack of oversight showed up in simple, surface ways like leaving the mic stand centerstage whether in use or not, or the woefully ill-fitting, unflattering wardrobe choice that give the singer an amateurish look that was only exacerbated by the previously mentioned physicality. But the real damage was done when it came to the broad, clichéd concept and the lack of emotional and narrative detail in the phrasing and storytelling in so many of the songs and so much of the patter. More assured direction might have shaped and polished the material in ways to better show off the evening’s star and offered a welcome editorial eye to refine or replace things that weren’t working.

At one point near the end of Higher Love, Frostig said in introducing the next song, “I don’t want to give you too much backstory.” I thought to myself, “Please, please, please give me more backstory,” or front story, or any story. That is just what was missing the whole evening. I wanted to know the story, but more than that, I wanted to know the performer beyond the empty angst and platitudes that he used to put the songs in motion. I wanted Ryan Frostig’s queer themes within the promised fantasia but I never got them. 

***

Presented at Chelsea Table + Stage, 152 W. 26th St., NYC,  on June 22, June 25, and September 8, 2022.

 

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary, Reviews

About the Author ()

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”

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