Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song

Also see Susan's reviews of Richard III and Violet

Freda Payne
The dynamic Freda Payne is the primary reason to see Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song, the latest biographical musical, at MetroStage in Alexandria, Virginia. While Lee Summers' book follows the "and-then-I-sang" template, the show receives a boost in authenticity from conceiver and director Maurice Hines, who worked with Ella during his own legendary career.

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.

Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song
January 23rd - March 16th
Book by Lee Summers
Conceived and directed by Maurice Hines
Music direction by William Knowles
Ella: Freda Payne
Young Ella/Frances: Wynonna Smith
Georgiana: Roz White
Norman Granz: Tom Wiggin
1201 N. Royal St.
Alexandria, VA 22314
Ticket Information: 703-548-9044 or

Photo: Chris Banks

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