The six-member company, led by Tina Fabrique as Ella, has been together through several other engagements of this show over the past two years, and the cast members now understand each other intuitively. Director Rob Ruggiero, who co-created the show with Dyke Garrison, has given the material the polish and elegance – and respect – it requires.
Jeffrey Hatcher's book is more workmanlike than inspired, although he cleverly incorporates some early moments that pay off beautifully later. The main challenge is that, while other jazz divas such as Billie Holiday brought their personal dramas onstage with them, Ella kept her offstage life distinct from her performances.
Hatcher imagines Ella and her musicians in Nice, France, in 1966, days after she has faced a shattering personal loss, which her longtime friend and producer Norman Granz (Harold Dixon) insists she address during that evening's concert. Ella's look backward through her life in the first act culminates in her performance in the second act.
"I'm the only woman I know in this business who doesn't have a past," Ella says as she considers her life. That turns out not to be true: although she never had an alcohol or drug problem, she survived a turbulent childhood, poverty, life on the streets, abuse by her stepfather and a stay in a reform school. Music provided her with a means of escape, and while she dreamed of domesticity and motherhood, she was always much more comfortable traveling throughout the world.
Fabrique fully inhabits the role of Ella. Her singing is not an impersonation, it's an interpretation of the singer's lyrical clarity and fluid command. She conveys a variety of vocal textures, all convincing: the artlessness of teenage Ella's first performance at the Apollo Theatre on Amateur Night; the emotional release in her scorching rendition of That Old Black Magic; her sleek rendition of 'S Wonderful; a crystalline moment of a cappella melody near the end of the performance; and the joyous abandon of her scatting throughout.
Arena Stage was fortunate to find a former movie theater/lecture hall in an underground shopping mall in the Arlington, VA, neighborhood of Crystal City to serve as its flagship theater for the next 29 months. Despite having only a few weeks to do renovations and install scenic and lighting equipment, the space looks and sounds like a good fit for the company, and it offers both convenient parking and a direct connection to the Metro subway.