An Elegant and Entertaining "Ella"

By Geary Danihy

You enter a theater that is presenting a musical tribute to a singer of renown, now deceased, trailing echoes, snatches and snippets of phrasing unique to the luminary being honored, and the question uppermost in your mind is, will the performer “get it right”? Will he or she be able to capture the essence of the icon; will you be viewing a doppelganger or a shadow? And if shadow, how will you manage your disappointment for the duration of the show?

“Not bad,” was my response to Tina Fabrique’s rendition of “How High the Moon,” the opening number in “Ella: The Musical,” now playing at Long Wharf Theatre. Yup, she sort of looks like Ella and she sort of sounds like Ella. I settled in and began to attend to Ella’s story as told by Fabrique, a story that begins with a concert in Nice in 1966, several days after Ella’s sister has passed away.
       
There’s some conflict between Ella and her manager of many years, Norman Granz (Harold Dixon), as to whether the show will actually go on and his request that she, ever reluctant to give interviews, provide the audience with some “patter,” quick peeks at her life in show business, which requires that one of her numbers be cut.

There are several more songs and some “patter” establishing the Fitzgerald character, and it’s all quite palatable and entertaining, until Frabrique launches into “You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini),” a plea for the stuffed shirts to “get hip,” and I felt my spine straightening and my right foot starting to tip-tap to the beat. From that point on, it didn’t matter whether Fabrique got Ella right (she does – right down to mannerisms and hand movements), because Fabrique is a marvelous performer in her own right, and for the rest of the evening I just let her voice and keen sense of phrasing (yes, thanks to Ella) carry me along, reveling in each number.

The project was conceived by Rob Ruggiero, familiar to Connecticut theater-goers as the associate artistic director of Hartford TheaterWorks, and first presented in that venue in 2005. Ruggiero directs this production as well, and he does so with a nice sense of restrained exuberance, which is also a good way to describe the book by Jeffrey Hatcher – there’s enough in Fabrique’s patter to get a sense of the life Ella Fitzgerald lived – her problems with men; her problems with racism; her problems with commitment to anything other than her life on the stage – without the patter becoming uncomfortably revelatory. There are no histrionics, just, at times, restrained tears, raised eyebrows and accepting sighs. In effect, just the way Ella, who shied from speaking about her past, would have wanted it.

Fabrique is backed up by an excellent quartet of musicians who double as some of the men in her life who both helped and bedeviled her: George Caldwell on piano, Rodney Harper on drums, and Cliff Kellam on bass. And then there is Ron Haynes, who plays trumpet and, as a Satchmo stand-in, does a “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” duet with Fabrique in the second act. It’s a delight.

Staging is simplicity itself. You have the quartet upstage on risers and Ella downstage at the microphone in an area defined by a circle of silver. However, mood, tension and emphasis is established by John Lasiter’s lighting design, which is crisp yet subtle, the only false note being when Fabrique is bathed in lavender light, a hue that turns her skin color a bilious green, making her look like some off-planet chanteuse singing her heart out in the café scene in the original “Star Wars.”   

There’s a double-dip of pleasure to be had in “Ella: The Musical.” You get to travel back to the time when Ella Fitzgerald was the “First Lady of Song,” the queen of scat, and at the same time revel in the presence of Fabrique, who while evoking Fitzgerald gives her own subtle spin to such standards as “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “The Nearness of You,” “Night and Day” and “Oh, Lady Be Good.” You come away glad that there was an Ella and thankful that there is a Tina Fabrique.

“Ella: The Musical” runs through Sunday, Oct. 17. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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