The Crossroads Theater Co. in New Brunswick continues its bid to rebound from financial woes with “Ella Fitzgerald — The First Lady of Song.” This musical revue featuring former pop diva Freda Payne is a thinly disguised biodrama that amounts to little more than a well intended concert of jazz-flavored pop standards.
The play by Lee Summers follows the Fitzgerald story from her first-prize win at the famed Apollo Theater amateur contest in 1934 to her rise to fame as star of the Chick Webb band and through two turbulent marriages to her acclaimed 1966 concert with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at Cote d’Azur in Denmark. The text only serves as a fact sheet.
Career jumps are economically noted by Fitzgerald’s cousin and companion, Georgiana, played with an amiable spunky thrust by Tina Fabrique, and by Ted Koch as legendary manager and record producer Norman Granz.
Payne has done a remarkable job in credibly adopting Fitzgerald’s youthful vocal style. The phrasing, pitch, tone and diction bear a remarkable resemblance to the legendary singer’s sound, and she has mastered the wordless scatting style developed by Ella during the advent of bop music. In appearance, Payne has been transformed into the plain, padded frame and likeness of Fitzgerald.
More than 30 songs serve a celebratory banquet to honor the singer’s memory and career highlights. “A-Tisket, a-Tasket,” her version of the nursery rhyme that rose to the top of the charts, the playful “Goody Goody” and her memorable perf of “Mack the Knife” are re-created with the assist of a hard-swinging jump band. Cushy ballads include “The Nearness of You,” “Easy Living” and a take on “My Buddy” that defines the art of torch singing.
Maurice Hines — who conceived the piece — has staged the show with a hand firmly rooted in concert-style presentation. However, book scenes are awkward and the players have yet to get a strong hold on the script.
It’s not easy to convey the true essence of a great artist, as previous reincarnations of jazz greats — Dinah Washington portrait “Dinah Was,” Billie Holiday tuner “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” — have also demonstrated. But Payne’s re-creation is musically quite palatable.
With band onstage and the suggestion of a dressing room at stage right, the set is basically a concert hall, accented by visual locales from a Harlem street scene to the reproduction of record labels. A startling goof finds the last name of Richard Rodgers emblazoned in large letters minus the “d.” Oops!