Music, once in the bloodstream, is an infection that can either consume you or lie dormant inside until awakened. In Franke Previte’s case, it devours his mind and soul.
After fronting the popular ’80s group Franke & The Knockouts, he co-wrote “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” and “Hungry Eyes” for the soundtrack of the movie “Dirty Dancing,” winning an Oscar and a Golden Globe Award in the process. His most recent undertaking (with his partner, the incomparable Lisa Sherman) is a soon-to-be-touring show, “Calling All Divas,” which is more than a concert or a theater production. It’s what Previte calls “a celebration of women and song,” and it will be presented at the Pollak Theatre at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, July 11 at 8 p.m.
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 lightbulb went off in my head,” Previte says. “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 … I had to redo the whole thing and that takes time.”
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.’ … some of the songs and cast members have changed. …
“The story is about these four girls who … were brought to this guy … 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. 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’s afraid of the mob, because he owes them too much money.”
The action moves to various locales, as the story unfolds.
“He (Franke) goes into a gospel church and finds this girl (played by Carol Riddick) singing ‘Amazing Grace,’ ” says Previte. “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 (Sherman) shows up 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.”
Perhaps the most critical piece of the puzzle came after the script was set and the roles were cast: choosing the songs to fit each diva. Previte says 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 are songs from Carole King. …
“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 & 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 cappella background voices and percussion; 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’ … she has a little bit of a cachet 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.”
Zach Holden plays Franke, and soap veteran Frank Dicopoulos (who was on “Guiding Light” for 22 years) plays the club owner.
Regarding the Monmouth University show, Previte said: “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 1,500. I thought this would be … an opportunity to brand ourselves and work some things out. After this performance we are actually going on tour (in October) to Hershey, Pa., then to Mount Olive, N.J., 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.
“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, inspirationally, to a lot of people in life, where … 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.”
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