The final show of the season at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis is a rousing evening of jazz vocals featuring Tina Fabrique as the late "First Lady of Song," Ella Fitzgerald. In the now familiar form of semi-biographical tributes to musical artists, the evening combines snippets of Miss Fitzgerald's personal life with performances of songs with which she was identified during various stages of her career. What we learn about her follows another familiar pattern, as she overcomes managerial incompetence, personal trials and artistic resistance to emerge with her musical soul intact.
Miss Fabrique created this role and has been touring in it for more than a year; the production comes to St. Louis direct from the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. Predictably, her performance is polished to a high sheen both musically and dramatically. She does not so much imitate Miss Fitzgerald as evoke the spirit of her singing; the perfect pitch and incredible flexibility are there, as is the uniquely beautiful phrasing, but the tunes and the improvisations, even those most familiar from Miss Fitzgerald's recordings, are not simply repeated note for note, and Miss Fabrique's diction is noticeably her own.
The supporting role featuring Harold Dixon as Miss Fitzgerald's manager and agent Norman Granz, whose own fascinating career as an impresario ("Jazz at the Philharmonic") and founder of Verve, the most important jazz record label of the 1950s and '60's, deserves much more attention than it can be given in this production. The role isn't much more than a walk-on, but Mr. Dixon makes it thoroughly convincing.
The remainder of the cast consists of the quartet of musicians who support Miss Fabrique. Only one of them, trumpeter Thad Wilson, emerges as a character, and that only in a brief scene in which he does an imitation of Louis Armstrong. For the most part, the band is competent, if not inspired, and the sprinkling of opening night clams from Mr. Wilson didn't detract from the solid support they provide for Miss Fabrique's lyrical moments as well as for her flights of improvisational fancy.
In short, the Rep's production of Ella is a delightful tribute to a truly memorable singer whose innovative and brilliant artistry has thrilled and inspired audiences around the world. Tina Fabrique brings Miss Fitzgerald's spirit to vivid life and more than merits the standing ovations with which her performance was greeted on opening night. The show will run through April 13; for tickets call 314 968 4925 or visit www.repstl.org.