"Ella," a fascinating showcase performance at The Guthrie Theatre, is an in-depth look at the life and times of Ella Jane Fitzgerald. Tina Fabrique, on stage for the entire evening as singer and star, truly made this viewer walk away from the hot lights with a tour-de-force performance and a much deeper appreciation of the woman known as the "First Lady of Song."
Since its premiere in 2005, "Ella" has shined as a touring show in 18 venues across the United States. It’s a show in which the title actress is either going to sink or swim, and Fabrique is truly an adventurous singer and actress, coming off like a true champ as she keeps the audience fully engaged in the variety of musical techniques and a presence that totally resembles Fitzgerald. This is a show that was conceived around Fabrique and her abilities as an actress and a singer and her enthusiasm for the character shines in every word and note!
Fabrique is no stranger to the world of Fitzgerald music, gracing the stage in such Broadway hits as "Bring in ‘Da Noise,’ Bring in "Da Funk,’" "Ragtime," "The Wiz" and "Bubbling Brown Sugar." More importantly, her scatting Fitzgerald was one of the best is brilliantly seasoned and a delight to hear.
The life story of Ella Fitzgerald is perfect for the stage. Born in Newport News, Virginia on April 25, 1917 to William and Temperance "Tempie" Fitzgerald, her parents separated shortly after her birth. Mom and baby Ella moved New York City where Tempie remarried. Step-dad Joseph Da Silva. was a chauffeur and Tempie worked as a laundress. In 1923, Frances Da Silva, Ella's half-sister, was born.
Growing up, Ella loved to dance. She would spend more time dancing than singing, and watch acts at the famed Apollo Theater. She would dance on the streets with friends. She also had a sense of adventure and self-perseverance, running numbers for local gamblers, and spent time as a look-out for a bordello. Her life was just beginning when her mother died from injuries suffered in a car accident. Ella was only fifteen.
Ella eventually found herself living with her mother’s sister, Virginia. The transition was challenging and Ella was miserable. Her step-father died from heart failure and step-sister Frances joined Ella. But Fitzgerald often skipped school, a defiant behavior that saw her sent to the Colored Orphan Asylum, a reform school located in the Bronx. The first lady of swing endured several beatings by the hands of her caretakers at this reformatory. Miraculously, she escaped the hands of her abusers, but lived homeless in the boroughs of New York.
At age 17, in 1934, she won an amateur night singing contest and was discovered by Chick Webb, in search of a lead singer for his orchestra. His eye for talent took Ella’s career to levels she never imagined. While most jazz fans are purely interested in the songstress songbook, the adversity and hardships Ella endured in life is what makes this whole play, and the way she looked at music, interesting. Bring some tissue(s), Minnesota-bred playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, who was brought in to rewrite the book, tells all. Ella’s personal journey is full of heart-felt twists and turns, and glorious triumphs, too. Has to be. There are sweet fragrant meadows of music constantly telling us that Ella Fitzgerald was a woman before her time.
Fitzgerald was dedicated to her music. She sold over a million copies of a "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," based on a nursery rhyme. When the song hit number one it stayed on the charts for nineteen weeks. Her musical career included thirteen Grammy wins, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the National Medal of the Arts, to name a few select honors. In 1991 Fitzgerald performed her last concert at Carnegie Hall. She passed June 15, 1996 from complications associated with diabetes.
For the touring show, set designer Michael Schweikardt magically transforms the Guthrie stage into a star-studded music hall, circa Nice, Italy in 1966, including all the glitz and glamour the jazz enthusiasts would find in a quality cabaret. Lighting designer John Lasiter and sound designer Michael Miceli add to the mystical feel of a "Queen of Jazz" concert.
The two-hour musical includes a cast of poised musicians. Favorite tunes among the 23 performed included "Cow Cow Boogie," "Angel Eyes," "Blue Skies," "You'll Have to Swing It," "Night and Day," "Cheek to Cheek" and "That Old Black Magic." Hip swinging piano man George Caldwell, who also serves as the musical director of Ella, sets the tone for each song. Clifton Kellem shines on the bass, and Rodney Harper keeps the whole show on a steady pace on drums. Band trumpeter Ron Haynes also plays the role of Louis Armstrong, you want to see more of him interacting with Ella as Satchmo. But Haynes, like the other supporting cast members, are truly just a chorus for star Fabrique.
At one point Harold Dixon, who plays the infamous Norman Grantz, Ella’s manager, initially tells her to lose a song so she can talk more with the audience. A wonderful decision, as I found the talk from the Ella character to be a delight educational, informative and enlightening about one of the great singers in modern American history. Yes, it came at the expense of even more songs from the marvelous Tina Fabrique, a voice I could listen with enjoyment for many, many hours. But I was glad to learn that there was so much more to Ella Fitzgerald’s life that contributed to the making of this jazz icon.