"Ella" -- All Surface and Sleek
By David A. Rosenberg
Where are the martinis and nibbles? Masquerading as a dramatic work, “Ella” at Long Wharf is the kind of evening best enjoyed by sitting at a small table imbibing drinks and snacks. Thin as cellophane, at least it has memorable melodies sung and played by five gifted musicians.
Conceived by Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison, with a book of sorts by Jeffrey Hatcher, “Ella” purports to sketch in autobiographical details of Ella Fitzgerald. Sketchy though eventful is what the evening is, judging strictly by tidbits imparted: abusive childhood, Apollo Theater audition, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” stardom, American Songbook albums, unlucky love life. Popping up occasionally is Fitzgerald’s producer Norman Granz, gamely played by Harold Dixon.
But nothing is fully developed: it’s more outline than story. The only train that runs throughout is framed by her sister’s death, which is why Ella is dressed in black in Act One. Her beloved sibling having just died, she’s naturally reluctant to perform. Add to this her break with her sister’s son, Ray, Jr., whom she brought up as if he were hers, until he finds out the truth during an Act Two concert in Nice, with Ella now resplendent in a turquoise gown. All of this is told to us: nothing is actually dramatized.
For a woman notoriously reluctant to talk about herself (she gave few interviews), the revelations are intrusive. Actually, it all seems to be an excuse for another song, the personal stuff serving as intros. Even the more explosive accusations about not being “authentic,” euphemistic for being “too white,” are glossed over.
Thus: “My sister Frances died last week. When she died, I thought no one would ever love me that way. She loved me so much, she gave me her son.” Cue: the Ellington/Strayhorn “Something to Live For.” An aborted romance with a racketeer leads into “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Laments about being “played” by others, leads into ”The Man I Love.”
Earlier, Ella asks, “Why should we be so surprised to be loved?” Emerging from a hardscrabble childhood (she shook her hips to attract customers to local whorehouses), Fitzgerald reaches peaks by learning to “scat,” that is, inserting extemporaneous nonsense syllables into her songs. It’s what separated her from other singers.
Yet, hearing these standards, and so well rendered, is almost worth sitting through the banalities. “How High the Moon,” “Mr. Paganini,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Blue Skies,” etc. – it’s a cornucopia of American popular music.
Although Tina Fabrique is listed as playing Ella, at the performance I caught her understudy, Joilet Harris, played the role. And she was excellent, capturing with sly confidence the gestures and intonations of the woman dubbed “The First Lady of Song.” Handkerchief at the ready, she gave bounce and vitality, as well as attractive guilelessness to her every number.
At times Harris duets with ingratiating trumpeter Ron Haynes who has the beloved Louis Armstrong down to a “T.” Backed also by music director George Caldwell on piano, Rodney Harper on drums and Cliff Kellam on bass, the evening is a nostalgic throwback to songs one can hum and rhythms to tap one’s feet to. Credit musical supervisor and arranger Danny Holgate and director Rob Ruggiero with keeping the joint rockin’. Technical credits are also sleek. But sleek is not the same as incisive. You can admire this Ella without being touched by her tale. Another martini, please.
Dave Rosenberg's review in The Hour, Oct. 10