Tina Fabrique
There has never been a singer like Ella Fitzgerald. Her voice had a purity and energy that was stunning, and her jazz sensibility was groundbreaking. She was a well-known star the world over—the First Lady of Song. But she was not comfortable in the star role; she was shy and self-conscious, and she had a very hard time finding happiness off the stage. Ella, a biographical musical conceived by Rob Ruggiero (who also directs) and Dyke Garrison with a book by Jeffrey Hatcher, presents a narrative of Fitzgerald's humble beginnings and her rise to fame, as well as the sad side of her life. And the Public Theater production employs a perfect nightclub set (Michael Schweikardt) well paired with effective lighting (John Lasiter) and a kick-ass jazz combo (more on them later) to present the story.

But most of all, it gives us Tina Fabrique as Ella Fitzgerald.

It's not that we want the storytelling to hurry along so we'll get to the next song, because the story is interesting and presented well by Fabrique and cast, but thank god we get all those songs. Ms. Fabrique is simply a stunning singer. She presents beautiful songs from the American Songbook in an "Ella" style, but it sounds like a style that is naturally her own. And she can scat like the lady who made scatting famous—not like a gimmick, but as if she were an instrument in the band. Or several instruments. Highlights in an evening of highlights are "You'll Have to Swing it (Mr. Paganini)," "That Old Black Magic" and "The Man I Love." The elements of Fitzgerald's disappointing personal life and the songs she sang are intertwined, and Fabrique brings out the deep love for music the singer had—something so important in her life that she couldn't take herself away from it to build a relationship with a man, or with a son. Ella Fitzgerald didn't give that love to the world, she shared it with the world.

George Caldwell on piano, Ron Haynes on trumpet, Rodney Harper on drums and Clifton Kellem on bass offer superb musical background (arrangements by Danny Holgate). And they provide nicely developed supporting characters, such as Chick Web, Louis Armstrong and Ray Brown. Harold Dixon plays Norman Granz, the jazz music producer who was influential in the direction of Fitzgerald's later career. The entire cast has been together for a number of productions of the show.

Ella is a rich and satisfying evening of song and story. The joy and fulfillment Ella Fitzgerald got from her music is passed perfectly on to the audience through Tina Fabrique, and it is impossible not to be swept up in the feeling.

Ella at the O'Reilly Theatre through November 1, 2009. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit www.ppt.org.

See the current Schedule of Pittsburgh Theatre.

-- Ann Miner

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