A thousand cheers for Ella—and for Tina Fabrique who recreates Ella Fitzgerald on stage. Backed by a gifted combo of four musicians (George Caldwell—piano, Rodney Harper—drums, Ron Haynes—trumpet, and Cliff Kellam--bass), Fabrique gives a stellar performance. It was Long Wharf Theatre’s opening night for “Ella—The Musical” and a packed house was there to acclaim a show that was nothing short of remarkable.
Fabrique offers up the very essence of Ella—note for note, sound for sound. Her own rich, velvety voice and her versatility work to meet the challenge. Tina becomes Ella—Ella-Tina—as she runs through a litany of Fitzgerald favorites, interspersed with anecdotes. Every version of every song is unique, and Ella-Tina can handle anything from moody ballads to novelty tunes to scat. (The latter, Ella’s trademark, was her own invention, her own singing style--nonsense syllables improvised and fired off like a shotgun.)
The story moves forward, in tandem with the songs. Ella-Tina reveals a difficult childhood, matched always by a fierce urge to sing. Over the years difficulties continue, with marriages that fail and an adopted son who becomes estranged. Nothing quite works out. But Ella the singer moves from success to success, ultimately rising to stardom and the first lady of jazz. What emerges is a portrait of a modest, “good” woman who happens to have an enormous musical gift.
While Ella-Tina carries the show on her broad shoulders, she is well matched by supporting performers. The first-class musical combo never drowns her out, but is in perfect sync, at times stepping into the action. One highlight, for example, is Fabrique’s number with trumpet player Ron Haynes. The two create a delightful Ella-Louie Armstrong duo. And Harold Dixon, who plays Ella’s manager Norman Granz, is a welcome addition.
Rob Ruggiero has directed this show, to his credit, and conceived the original idea with Dyke Garrison. Jeffrey Hatcher’s book shows respect for Ella’s true life, never skirting its difficult moments nor turning reality into melodrama. And Danny Holgate’s musical arrangements are true to history.
Supposedly, it is the night of Ella’s concert just after the funeral of her beloved half-sister. Ella is in no mood to perform, but gamely goes on with the show. With a simple but appropriate set (courtesy of Michael Schweikardt) and lighting (John Lasiter)--the mike, the spot, the band, the glittering backdrop—Ella-Tina steps up and takes over—and the excitement begins.
This review also appears in the Connecticut Post and on nytheaterscene.com.