"Love me for what I am," Tony winner Frances Ruffelle demanded in the opening monologue of Beneath the Dress, her intimate one-woman show at 54 Below. Never fear; by the end of this thoroughly entertaining and delightfully sexy performance, it was all but impossible to not love this petite powerhouse of an entertainer.
Ruffelle skyrocketed to fame playing the iconic street urchin Eponine in the original London and Broadway casts of Les Misérables, winning the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. More than 20 years later, she presented a whirlwind hour of entertainment, singing, dancing and changing costumes numerous times throughout the evening as she transitioned from one character to another, performing "songs about the girl I was and the woman I am now, and all that crazy stuff in the middle."
Ruffelle burst into the room, singing a robust rendition of Michael John LaChiusa's "Welcome to My Party," stopping at tables to greet audience members (and even asking one of them, "Who invited you?"). She then performed a sexy striptease, while crooning Duke Ellington's "Hit Me With a Hot Note."
The evening also included a mournful rendition of Jacques Brel's "If You Go Away" and a swinging performance of "What Now, My Love?" Returning to the stage in a slinky black slip, Ruffelle wooed the crowd with Cole Porter's "It's All Right With Me." Several songs included rock arrangements, which she took obvious delight in belting. She frequently strolled, danced or ran around the performance space while singing, rarely remaining onstage for the entirety of a song.
Then came the moment many Les Misérables fans were no doubt waiting for: Ruffelle defiantly donned the iconic hat Eponine wears in the play and strode center stage as the introductory music to one of Eponine's songs played. She then sang a raunchy rewrite of the song as the audience roared with laughter. An upbeat version of "Boy I'm Lucky" was next, along with a story of Ruffelle auditioning for the role of Eponine with an Edith Piaf number. That song, combined with a verse of "On My Own," followed.
The evening highlighted the singing actress' versatility: She transformed from a flirtatious and hopeful girl to a sultry temptress to a jaded older woman to a content adult seamlessly.
Beneath the Dress will again be performed Sept. 18 at 9:30 PM.
54 Below is located at 254 W. 54th Street. Tickets and additional information are available at 54Below.com.