ELLA COMES TO LIFE IN LONG WHARF’S MUSICAL OPENER – NEW HAVEN REGISTER, SEPT. 19 – Long Wharf Theatre
‘Ella’ comes to life in Long Wharf’s musical opener
Sunday, September 19, 2010
NEW HAVEN — When Tina Fabrique takes to the stage to play the jazz great Ella Fitzgerald, she re-creates Ella’s famous scat singing as though she’s singing sacred music.
Because those seemingly casual trills and dips and improvisational “beepity bops” were Ella’s trademark, Fabrique has learned them note for note — and when she delivers them to the breathless audience, it’s as though she’s channeling America’s “first lady of song” herself.
Fabrique has been touring the country for the last five years starring in the Rob Ruggiero-directed “Ella The Musical,” an upbeat, joyful extravaganza, written by Jeffrey Hatcher, that opens the Long Wharf Theatre season Wednesday and runs through Oct. 17. It features more than two dozen of Ella’s hit songs, while exploring the legend surrounding one of the greatest jazz singers of the 20th century. George Caldwell is the musical director and pianist.
For Fabrique, the chance to play Ella Fitzgerald was a perfect fit. Already a jazz singer in her own right, Fabrique had sung as a soloist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and had appeared in several Broadway productions, including “Ragtime,” and “Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk,” and had done regional theater as well as several national tours.
When she auditioned for the part of Ella, she was considered by all who knew her to be perfect for the part. Not only did she look a bit like Ella (they share a similar facial structure), but she also knew plenty about the singer’s style.
“I was already a natural jazz singer, but my sound was more like Sarah Vaughan,” she says. “Although both women were like horns, Sarah was more like a saxophone and Ella was more like a trumpet,” she says. “A trumpet does quick, high notes and the sax does more slurred, meaty middle-voice notes. What I had to do was to connect the two and meet in the middle and become a reflection of Ella’s spirit, not an imitation of her.”
When she got the part, she says, she felt it was important to approach it as an actress rather than just as a singer. “The singing went without saying,” she says, “but I wanted to find the true person underneath. People started sending me packages of CDs and tapes of her. I watched everything I could find, about her talking about her career and about her life, and I built on that.”
What she learned was that although Ella was a highly successful singer, having won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums, her upbeat and happy image was hard-won. In fact, she was a shy woman who found interacting with audiences difficult, and she had endured great hardships in her life.
Her mother died when she was still a child, and after being abused by her stepfather, she was sent to an orphanage and then later to a reformatory, from which she ran away. As a teenager, she was homeless for a time and had to dance for money, but she was always determined to make something of herself.
When she was 14, she went to the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and although she won the amateur contest, she was wearing old cast-off clothes and men’s shoes, and was considered too gawky and unkempt to be given a chance to return. A band leader, Chick Webb, took her under his wing and asked some young women he knew to help her learn to fix her hair and how to dress. He taught her her craft, got her dressed up, and showed her what songs to sing.
After that, her career took off.
The musical takes place in Nice, France, in 1966, during a three-day period in Ella’s life, when she has just gone through the sudden death of her beloved half-sister. She has just come back from the funeral, because her manager felt that it would be best for her not to linger at home and grieve, but to keep working. She has returned to put on a concert, but she is reflecting on her life, thinking about her memories and who she has become.
“It’s a very, very emotional every time,” says Fabrique. “I don’t have to act it. I can just be in the moment, and deal with what this woman was dealing with. The audience in the show knows what has happened to her because it was in all the papers, and when she talks to the audience during the show, her sadness is palpable.”
Fabrique says the response from audiences all around the country has been amazing. “For me, this has been one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done,” she says. “Each theater and region of the country have had their own personality. In some places, they start applauding when they recognize the songs. In others, they listen intently and they applaud softly but don’t want to miss anything. At the end of the show, there have often been two or three standing ovations with some that have lasted seven or eight minutes each.”
Fabrique, who has recently put out her own CD called “Tina Fabrique Sings the Great Composers” (available on www.tribaldisorder.com), says that audiences can look forward to an up-close and personal look at Ella Fitzgerald’s character and come away with the feeling of having gotten to know who she was as a person and an artist.
In conjunction with the musical, Long Wharf is also presenting an opportunity for audiences to find out even more about the local jazz scene. New Haven, after all, once had iconic performers coming here to share their unique musical talents, and now a new documentary, “Unsung Heroes,” chronicles the city’s post-World War II jazz life.
It will be screened at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 27 on Stage II. There is a suggested donation of $10.
Director Rebecca Abbott, a Quinnipiac University professor and director of the film, will also be on hand for the talkback.
For more information about the event or “Ella,” call 203-787-4282 or visit www.longwharf.org.
Sandi Kahn Shelton’s latest book is “Kissing Games of the World.” Check our her blog at http://www.sandishelton.com/blog.
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