Friday, March 30, 2007


Enjoyable ‘ELLA,’ but without Ella

One of the problems in doing a show like ‘ELLA,’ which is now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, is that anyone who knows what Ella Fitzgerald looked like, sounded like, and acted like, expects the actor portraying the living legend to be that person.

Hal Holbrook is Mark Twain in his portrayal of the great writer in ‘MARK TWAIN TONIGHT.’ Several years ago, Wayne Turney appeared as Harry Truman in ‘GIVE ‘EM HELL HARRY,’ at Actors’ Summit. He didn’t just portray Truman, he was Truman.

Unfortunately, as good a singer and actress as Tina Fabrique is, she does not personify Ella Fitzgerald. She doesn’t look like, have the mannerisms or the voice of “The First Lady of Song.” That’s not to say she is bad, she is excellent. She just isn’t Ella.

Fitzgerald was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for more than half a century. In her lifetime, she won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums. What made Ella great was the wide-range of her voice, her accurate ability to give meanings to the words she sang, and her amazing ability to scat (sing meanings using sounds rather than words). Her voice was a musical instrument.

Born in 1917, she was early orphaned. She made her first foray into entertainment in 1934 when she won an amateur night contest at New York’s Apollo Theatre. Because of her unattractive looks she was denied the promised follow-up paid performances, but through sheer determination and a keen manager she rose to fame. By the 1990s, Ella had recorded over 200 albums and by 1991 when she gave her final performance there, she had performed 26 times at the famed Carnegie Hall.

Fitzgerald’s personal life was not happy. Her marriages didn’t last. Her relationship with her son (actually a child conceived by her sister and brother-in-law who she adopted) was filled with angst. Poor health plagued her through much of her career. She experienced heart problems and as a result of diabetes was forced to have both of her legs amputated below the knees. She died on June 15, 1996.

‘ELLA,’ with book by Jeffrey Hatcher and conception by Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison, chronologically follows part of the life of this great singer. It contains many of Ella’s hits including, “How High the Moon,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Pagannini),” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Our Love is Here to Stay,” ”That Old Black Magic” and her signature piece, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”

Though at times the dialogue gets a little sappy, it bridges the songs together and generally tells Ella’s story.

Ms. Fabrique is a fine singer in her own right. She grabs and holds an audience. Her acting is also excellent. She is ably assisted by George Roth, as Fitzgerald’s manager, Norman Granz. The orchestra is fantastic. Brian Sledge is wonderful on the trumpet and George Caldwell (piano/conductor), Rodney Harper (drums) and Clifton Kellem (bass) are all fine musicians.

Capsule judgement: If you go to see ‘ELLA’ expecting to see and hear a personification of Ella Fitzgerald you’ll be disappointed. Instead, go to hear Tina Fabrique sing Ella’s songs and give yourself a taste of the life of the queen of scat. With that mindset, you’ll enjoy yourself!