Ella on Broadway

A review of the Ella Fitzgerald tribute show, "Ella."

If there were more stage productions like “Ella” touring the country these days, I’m firmly convinced that the audience for vintage jazz would be considerably larger than it is.

“Ella,” touring in various guises since 2006—including a recent, six-show stop at Philadelphia’s Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts—is not a jazz concert, cabaret, revue show, stage play, musical, or “tribute show” in the traditional sense. “Ella” is a unique hybrid of all of them, spearheaded by a charismatic and powerful singer/actress named Tina Fabrique, who portrays the First Lady of Song. Perhaps a more accurate title for this marvelous opus would be “Ella on Broadway.”

No, Fabrique does not impersonate Fitzgerald, though she successfully assimilates Ella’s appearance, speaking voice, and, believe it or not, the incredible scatting. In the midst of the 23 songs sung in this production, and some are partials, audiences will hear a number of influences in Fabrique’s singing voice, including Sarah Vaughan (especially on ballads like “I’ll Never Be the Same”), Nancy Wilson, Dakota Staton and Carmen McRae. There are a few subtle overtones of contemporary vocalizing as well, which is as it should be.

On Fitzgerald’s signature rhythm tunes like “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Flyin’ Home,” “That Old Black Magic,” and “Lady Be Good,” Fabrique captures the essence and spirit of the First Lady. I don’t know if Fabrique’s scat singing is totally improvised, but no matter. It is, quite simply, extraordinary—with all of Fitz’ famed growls and crowd-pleasing interpolations intact--especially when given the fact that Fabrique’s formal jazz background, according to the credits, is not particularly extensive, though she has worked with Dick Hyman and the latter-day Ellington Orchestra. How she does it isn’t an issue. The fact is, she does it.

Aiding and abetting Fabrique is a tasty, on-stage small group featuring Musical Director George Caldwell on piano, Rodney Harper on drums, Philadelphian Clifton Kellem on bass, and Ron Haynes playing trumpet. Their job isn’t easy—indeed, they all have speaking lines throughout this production in addition to serving as accompanists—but they are superb throughout as actors and players, and often generate a good deal of heat. “Swinging” and “Broadway” are usually not synonymous. In “Ella,” they often are.

The show is set in Nice, France, during what is supposed to be a 1966 European tour by the First Lady. In this setting, Fabrique tells of Ella’s life through words and song, covering her early days with Chick Webb’s band, signing up with manager/impresario Norman Granz (energetically and accurately portrayed by Harold Dixon), the failed marriage to bassist Ray Brown, adoption of her sister’s son, romances, loves lost, her relationship with audiences and the sheer joy of singing.

Some reviewers have taken issue with the show’s “book,” written by Jeffrey Hatcher and under the direction of Rob Ruggiero. I don’t. The dialogue and Fitzgerald’s personal story help make “Ella” much, much more than a “and- then-I-sang,” one woman tour-de-force. By way of the dialogue, Fabrique is able to define “the real” Ella Fitzgerald that most of the world never knew. By the time “Ella” is finished, audiences will know her. And love her.

Shows like these—and purists out there should note that this is a “show” and not a jazz recital—draw non-jazz lovers’ attention to essential music and essential artists. Hopefully, this project will revive interest in the music of Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz performers, much in the way that “Ain’t Misbehavin’ worked for Fats Waller and “Sophisticated Ladies” for Ellington.

What’s next, “Warne Marsh on Broadway?” You never know.

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Bruce Klauber