When you’re Franke Previte and you’ve had success as a front man for the popular 80’s group Franke & The Knockouts; what’s next? Well in Previte’s case you pen two of the most recognizable tunes of a now iconic movie soundtrack, win Academy and Golden Globe Awards for “Best Original Song” and go on in life doing what you love and loving what you do.
Music, once in the bloodstream is an infection that can either consume you, or lie dormant inside until awakened; in Previte’s case it devours his mind and soul. His most recent undertaking (with his partner the incomparable Lisa Sherman) is a soon to be touring show titled, “Calling All Divas” which is more than a concert and more than a theater production; it’s what Previte calls, “A celebration of women and song” and it will take to the stage of Monmouth University‘s Pollak Theatre at 8 p.m. on July 11.
Certainly a show, or any production for that matter must take time; how long has this been in the works and what makes it different for audiences?
“When Lisa told me back in 2014 that she was thinking about doing her “Decades Of Divas” show, it was like a light bulb went off in my head. I started telling her that there could be a little story there about four girls getting together and how these divas throughout the years created you and made you the singer that you are today and that you’re not trying to copy them but you’re celebrating them. That is what this show is about; not some tribute band where people will say, oh they sounded just like Led Zeppelin or just like the Eagles; these girls were influenced by these iconic women. So it’s more like a celebration of music than a tribute band. I found out that I couldn’t trademark the name “Decades of Divas” so I came up with “Calling All Divas” and rewrote the story about these four girls from different walks of life and different ages coming together and competing against each other and then come up with the songs; I had to redo the whole thing and that takes time.”
The show’s premise is not necessarily a new one to musical theater but it is rather unique in its focus as they are fine tuning the production with every performance.
“The show is still a little bit in the tweaking stages; kind of like when you first write a song and you write the lyrics and you’re singing it in the studio and you think, you know maybe I should tweak these lyrics a bit. So the story, since we first wrote it, some of the projections, some of the songs and cast members have changed. We have a girl named Alessandra Guercio; she was a finalist on “The Voice” and she’s a young lady who plays ,“The Subway Singer,” so the story is about these four girls who compete against each other who were brought to this guy who is going to make one of them the next superstar. He is going to take one of these girls and make her a superstar and have her play at his historic club which has fallen on hard times and he tells this young songwriter “Franke” that he has to close the club. So Franke sets out to find the next star because he’s determined not to let him close the club. The owner, “Mr. D,” gives him 72 hours to find the next girl that he can make a superstar because he owes a lot of people money and he’s afraid of the mob because he owes them too much money.”
Previte says that through the wonders of “Projection” the audience will be taken“inside” various locales as the story unfolds.
“So through projection he (Franke) goes into a gospel church and finds this girl (played by Carol Riddick) singing “Amazing Grace.” He then follows her to a blues club in Harlem and listens to her sing and pitches her to come audition.Then he goes to a country bar and finds another girl (played by Trenna Barnes) and pitches her and then goes back to the club and tells his boss that he found two girls who are really hot and one of them is going to be “it” and he’s told by him to go and find a third because three is his lucky number. So now he’s got to find a third girl; he was scheduled to be in the recording studio himself that night and there he finds a friend who he’s known for years (played by Lisa Sherman) in the same studio. So right under his nose he thinks he’s found the third girl and she turns him down because she has a past history with Mr D who last she saw him he was naked in “The Wonder Wheel” on Coney Island waiting for her to meet him and she had split so she thinks he’s still pretty pissed off at her.”
“Franke leaves thinking it’s over and he hears this young girl singing in the subway and he gets her to audition. So just as the auditions are about to start a fourth girl shows up (Lisa Sherman) and so it’s now the four of them. So they sing for this guy and he has to pick one and he can’t figure out who to pick and as the girls get to know each other and sing for him; they realize that they’re stronger together than they are apart. So they start to work together, become friends, empower one another and become stronger, a little bit like a sisterhood; so the second act is a concert by whom he picks.”
So the script is set and the roles are cast but now comes perhaps the most critical piece of the puzzle; choosing the songs to fit each diva. Previte says that each tune was “Tailored” for each vocalist.
” The great songs that we picked are classic platinum songs by Etta James, Whitney Houston, and Tina Turner but there are country songs, modern and older country songs from Wynonna Judd to Linda Ronstadt and Kelly Clarkson. There’s songs from Carole King; the show is about the songs and the girls and what we’ve done with the projection is like the icing and cherry on the cake. This is a totally different way to view a concert, it’s more like a theatrical concert. We picked the songs that we thought were fitting to the girls voices. Carol Riddick who plays the blues singer has worked with Patti LaBelle, Gamble and Huff and Sister Sledge and she’s every bit as good as they are so it was very important for us to find songs that showed her voice off. So I found songs that show their voices off; Trenna Barnes was in a band called Cowboy Crush who’ve done like nine albums for Curb Records and she was in a play called, “Ring of Fire” which was the Johnny Cash story and she’s up here from Nashville. Then for Lisa I arranged a version of “Rolling In the Deep” where there’s a bit of a capella, background voices and percussion; so you can only hear these arrangements if you come to the show. I went online to find the part of the subway singer and was surprised to find Alessandra on “The Voice” auditioning with a song called, “The Climb” and she was being judged by “Steven Tyler” who said she was, “Awesome” and Christina Aguilera who said, “I want her on my team;” so she has a little bit of a cache to her and hearing her sing “The Climb” and knowing that it was in the show I reached out to her and she was into joining the show.”
Rounding out the cast is Zach Holden who takes on the part of Franke and soap veteran Frank Dicopoulos who was on “Guiding Light” for 22 years and he plays Mr. D the club owner.”
The ensemble has done several shows already, test runs so to speak but this effort at Monmouth University is also tailored to the production and beyond.
“I thought a Thursday may be a cool night to do stuff because it’s an off night, people aren’t in a hurry to get to their weekend like they’d be on a Friday and the show starts at 8 p.m. and is over by 10:30 p.m. so it’s not a late evening. I had a chance to book this show in other places but I thought that the Pollak Theatre would be a good building block for us because it’s a community place, a smaller boutique theater which holds 720 people not a bigger theater like The Count Basie which holds fifteen hundred; I thought this would be a good building block for the show, an opportunity to brand ourselves and work some things out. After this performance we are actually going on tour to Hershey, PA, then to Mount Olive, NJ and then in the month of November we have six dates in Florida.”
Despite all the hard work, lengthy rehearsals and preparation; Previte says he’d have things no other way and wants the audiences, especially the ladies to take something special away from the performances.
“What is kind of neat is; it’s really a ladies night out because when these women are singing there’s somebody in the audience who can relate; I’m that girl or I’m that girl, she’s 50 and still kicking ass. This isn’t a show about four young, up and coming singers, it’s about four girls who still believe in themselves and are still reaching for that brass ring. I think that’s true inspiration-ally to a lot of people in life where they’re a mother, the diva in their life. They could be a mother who is changing their child’s life which makes them the diva in their family so we’re trying to portray that diva is not a bad word, I mean Mother Teresa could be a diva as she changed the way people feel about each other; these girls are empowering each other and we want that story of empowerment to radiate to the audience.”
*Feature photo by Coucou Photography