REVIEW: ELLA AT LONG WHARF THEATRE, NEW HAVEN REGISTER REVIEW – Long Wharf Theatre
Friday, October 1, 2010
By E. Kyle Minor, special to The Register
NEW HAVEN — The question of doing a musical biography such as “Ella The Musical” is how can one find a performer who even comes close to its subject, the inimitable Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)? “The First Lady of Song,” as she was known, reigned supreme during the 1950s and ’60s in a career spanning seven decades. She had a perfectly clear and clean voice that made popular music swing, often with her uncanny ability to scat. It made no difference: Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, or Irving Berlin — you name the composer. Fitzgerald put them at their best.
Long Wharf Theatre, which is producing “Ella The Musical” through Oct. 17 on its Mainstage, puts its money on Tina Fabrique in the title role. Fabrique doesn’t truly look like Fitzgerald (“Fitz” to her close associates) or, for that matter, sound exactly like her subject. That’s simply not a reasonable expectation. She does, without question, evoke Ella, in both manner and voice. Most importantly, the woman can swing.
“Ella The Musical,” with a book by Jeffrey Hatcher, conceived by Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison and directed by Ruggiero, may well satisfy ardent Fitzgerald fans, casual onlookers and jazz neophytes.
Set in a concert hall in Nice in 1966, shortly after the untimely death of her half-sister and closest friend, Frances, the show chronicles Fitzgerald’s life from her early childhood in Yonkers, N.Y. (she was born in Newport News, Va.), through her early triumphs in amateur contests and onto her stint with drummer-bandleader Chick Webb and, finally, as a solo act.
The conceit is that Norman Granz (Harold Dixon), Fitzgerald’s producer-manager, wants his talent to talk about herself, or patter, in between songs. Though Fitzgerald wasn’t known for tooting her own horn, here she quickly loses her reluctance to talk about herself and it’s off to the races. We learn about her brief, first marriage to a dockworker with a rap sheet, Benny Kornegay. After that was annulled, there’s the more successful marriage to bassist Ray Brown, the adoption of their son, Ray Jr., much about Fitzgerald’s conflicting needs to be a mother and an on-the-road performer. And, of course, there’s her close relationship with Frances.
While the biographical patter may be informative and interesting, it’s the music people want to hear. Fabrique, with her excellent band — George Caldwell (pianist), Rodney Harper (drums), Ron Haynes (trumpet) and Cliff Kellam (bass) — don’t fail their audience. Under Caldwell’s music direction and supervision, the band wails on Danny Holgate’s spiffy arrangements.
Among the show’s 24 songs that are played in full or part are “That Old Black Magic,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Blue Skies” and, of course, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” her first hit and perhaps her signature song. Fabrique and Haynes pair up to sing a couple songs a la Ella and Louis Armstrong, including the Gershwins’ “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”
In fact, the music numbers are so good that one wishes that Hatcher’s book, which dips its toes into bathos later on, was a tad shorter of wind to make room for more songs (the performance lasts about 2 hours and 15 minutes with an intermission). Even if it did, though, it’s difficult to imagine how one could include all of her hits into a reasonable evening of theater. Might as well be thankful for what “Ella The Musical” has got.
E. Kyle Minor of Danbury is a freelance writer.
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