Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song
Ella Fitzgerald (1917-96) began performing as a scrappy teenager, dancing for spare change after leaving home; she got her professional start after winning the famous talent contest at Harlem's Apollo Theater. Her career lasted decades, from the big band era through bebop, and on to her landmark recordings of American popular songs.
Summers and Hines frame the action as Ella's reminiscences in 1966, immediately following the death of her half sister Frances (Wynonna Smith, who also plays Young Ella). She sits in her dressing room on the Cote d'Azur and remembers her early enthusiasm; the give and take of her career with Chick Webb's orchestra, and her attempt to keep the orchestra together after Webb's death; her two marriages and the son she adopted; and her later career overseen by jazz producer Norman Granz (Tom Wiggin). Standing by throughout is Ella's cousin and personal assistant, Georgianna (Roz White).
Backed by a sleek five-piece combo conducted by pianist William Knowles, Payne makes her way through Fitzgerald classics from "If You Can't Sing It, You'll Have to Swing It" and "A Tisket, A Tasket," to a propulsive "Sweet Georgia Brown" and a scatted "How High the Moon," to "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "The Man I Love." Both Smith and White are also notable singers, but they have limited opportunities to perform here.