Also see John's review of Beehive
In a time when celebrities and studios courted the press, Ella remained an enigma. She never chose to spend her off-stage time drinking and carousing, or making appearances at Hollywood parties. Not the greatest of beauties, Ella felt she could not compete with other performers physically, and so did not spend time focused on glamour. Instead she focused on her music, and in committing herself to song. In a quote from the show, Ella says "My life is more like Doris Day's than Lady Day's!" But what is behind the woman and her music? That is what author Jeffrey Hatcher attempts to answer in Ella.
Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia. In 1934, while living on the streets of Harlem, Ella made her stage debut in an amateur contest sponsored by the Apollo Theatre in NYC. In 1935 she made her first recording with Chick Webb, and went on to take over the direction of Chick's band after his death in 1939. In 1942 she embarked on her solo career, with Norman Granz of Verve Records later becoming her manager in 1953. She held her final recording session in 1988, and on June 15, 1996 died of complications from Diabetes at the age of seventy eight. This is the part of her life that her public knew, but there is much more.
Ella's father abandoned the family in 1920, before Ella was even four. After her mother died of a heart attack in 1932, there are substantial allegations that Ella was the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. At age fifteen, Ella is placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale, New York, after being caught working as a lookout for a house of prostitution. In 1941 she married Ben Kornegay, but had the marriage quickly annulled when she discovered he was a con man. In 1948 she married Ray Brown, the bassist for Dizzy Gillespie's band. Unable to have their own child, they adopted one of her half-sister's children and raised him as their own. Ella retained custody of their son, Ray Brown, Jr., after the couple's divorce in 1953. In the summer of 1966, Ella's beloved half-sister died. It was not until the funeral that her son discovered that Ella was not his biological mother. Ray Jr. was hurt and angry with Ella, who was already painfully absent from his life due to her busy tour schedule.
Ella takes place on the night of a concert that everyone expects to be canceled. Ella has flown back from her half-sister's funeral to a concert hall in Nice, France. There our story takes place, as she rehearses with her band, determined to go on with the scheduled sold out performance. But her eyes and heart remain focused on the one seat she has reserved for her son in hopes that he will come to the show that night. She reminisces about her life and her choices, sharing her hopes and hurts. In the end she concludes "I guess what everyone wants more than anything else is to be loved."
Conceived by Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison, Ella is based on Ella: Off The Record, which originally appeared at TheaterWorks in Hartford, Connecticut where Ruggiero has been Associate Artistic Director for thirteen years. Ella's author, Jeffrey Hatcher, is also the author of Mercy of Storm and the books for Never Gonna Dance, Three Viewings and A Picasso.
The music for Ella features arrangements by musical director Danny Holgate. The live, four piece band plays well done, scaled-down versions of original orchestrations. Although trumpeter Longineau Parsons does only a modest vocal imitation of Louis Armstrong, he is a truly extraordinary trumpet player. The audience is given just enough time to recognize him as a solo artist without it taking away from the show, and every note is a pleasure to hear.
The set is perhaps a bit too plain for a sold-out performance in Nice by a star of Ella's status. It has the feel of a small nightclub rather than a grand concert hall. The costuming for Tina Fabrique, who plays Ella, looks exactly like something the real Ella wore, and helps to enhance the strong physical resemblance Miss Fabrique has to Miss Fitzgerald.
Each of the musicians in this cast also portrays various characters from Ella's life. It is clear at the beginning of the show that they are not as comfortable as actors as they are as musicians. The script takes a good fifteen minutes to get off the ground. Even Miss Fabrique seems encumbered by some writing that sounds like it was tacked on to an existing script. Dan Leonard's performance as Ella's manager Norman Granz is cold and plastic. He does nothing to establish any relationship with Ella on stage. So it comes as a surprise later in the show when she recounts that she has known him for thirteen years.
Tina Fabrique sings some twenty five songs as Ella Fitzgerald, continuing to tell her story mostly through monologues. She hits her stride six songs into the show with "I'll Never Be The Same." From there on, she becomes Ella as much as one could. She tirelessly weaves her way through mature and tender sounding vocals, and is especially wonderful on difficult scat sections of songs. She gives us beautiful renditions of songs such as "Mr. Paganini," "That Old Black Magic," "Blue Skies," "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off," and "Oh, Lady be Good." Her only vocal flaws are rare moments of wandering to a sound that is darker and more soulful than Ella's. With Ella's look and sound in hand, Miss Fabrique also captures Ella's gift to her audience; her ability to step inside a song and lose herself in its melody is pure magic. Ella will be sorely missed, but her voice will live on.
From humble beginnings, Ella went on to receive thirteen Grammy Awards (including one for Lifetime Achievement) during her lifetime. She made significant contributions to organizations for disadvantaged youths, and was a pioneer of the civil rights movement. She refused to be discriminated against in hotels and restaurants while on tour, even in the Deep South. She received lifetime achievement awards from the Kennedy Center and the NAACP, garnered the National Medal of Art and the national Medal of Freedom, and was awarded honorary degrees from four universities.
The Florida Stage, in conjunction with executive producers Kretzer Piano and Larmoyeaux & Bone, present this world premiere production of Ella. Upon completion of its run at the Florida Stage, Ella is scheduled to go on to the San Diego Rep., the Arizona Theatre Company and the Cleveland Playhouse before returning again to Florida, where it will appear at the Asolo Theater Company.
Ella will be appearing at the Florida Stage through September 3, 2006. The theater is located in Plaza del Mar, at 262 S. Ocean Blvd. in Manalapan. The Florida Stage is a professional theater, with extensive programs for young artists, hiring Equity and Non-Equity performers from across the United States. Tickets and other information may be obtained by calling the box office at (561) 585-3433 or (800) 514-3837, or on line at www.floridastage.org.
Ella Fitzgerald:: Tina Fabrique*
* Designates a member of Actor's Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States.
+Designates a member of the United Scenic Artists Union.
++ Designates a member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, Inc., an independent national labor union.