When Tina Fabrique starts to sing one of the nearly two dozen hits from the Ella Fitzgerald songbook, the biographical musical “Ella” finds its voice. Unfortunately, book writer Jeffrey Hatcher is not able to create an emotional drama out of a life that lacks the kind of highs and lows needed to give the tuner a more substantial story arc. But Fabrique is so powerful one wishes the show contained more even distribution of the songs that make a virtual concert of its second act.
“Ella” is a revised version of a previous production called “Ella — Off the Record,” with book by Dyke Garrison, which opened in 2005 at Theater Works in Hartford, Conn. Rob Ruggiero, who came up with the idea and directed the production, acknowledged the show needed a different book, hiring Hatcher, who followed a similar framework.
The first act begins at a rehearsal for a 1966 concert Fitzgerald gave in Nice, France, where her manager, Norman Granz (Harold Dixon), asks her to insert some patter about herself. While Granz says he doesn’t want it to be one of those “and then I sang” kind of productions, that’s what actually what happens through the first act, as Fitzgerald recalls growing up with an abusive stepfather, dancing outside brothels and struggling to find a man to love. But even when she thought her dreams of having a husband and child were realized, the lure of performing was too strong and she would head back on the road.
The second half is part of that Nice concert.
Fitzgerald certainly faced some obstacles in her life but Hatcher tends to gloss over them, making the events depicted less emotionally compelling than they need to be. As Fitzgerald says early on, “I’m the only woman I know in this business who doesn’t have a past. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t sleep around.” She considers herself more Doris Day than Lady Day.
But the show is interesting, particularly for those who know Fitzgerald only from that magical voice, her thrilling scatting and masterful interpretations of songs by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and others.
And it’s those songs that give life to the show. Fabrique, who has been with “Ella” since the beginning, captures the essence of Fitzgerald. She deftly uses her voice to recreate the singer’s style, yet still makes the songs her own.
When she starts to let loose on such favorites as “Mr. Paganini,” “A Tisket a Tasket” and “Blue Skies,” Fabrique is a performer in tune with her instrument.
The show’s four musicians subtly provide the voices of some of the men in Fitzgerald’s life from behind their music stands. Trumpeter Brian Sledge joins Fabrique center stage to recreate a couple of duets Fitzgerald performed with Louis Armstrong. He matches Satchmo’s voice and playing style for exciting versions of “Cheek to Cheek” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”
Dixon is firm but friendly in his few moments on stage as Granz.
The production has been presented at several regional theaters in the last year, traveling next to San Jose Rep next and D.C.’s Arena Stage in December, with plans for a possible London production next year.