Ella Fitzgerald’s life story doesn’t have the trauma and drama of a Bessie Smith, a Dinah Washington or a Edith Piaf. Certainly there were sadness and disappointments, but the sweet-natured, squeaky-clean singer didn’t put them center stage. In “Ella: Off the Record,” world-preeming at Hartford’s Off Broadway-style theater, the show’s creators grapple with finding a way to tell the singer’s story in a compelling way and to showcase Fitzgerald’s style, spirit and songs.
They succeed in half of their goals, primarily through the casting of Tina Fabrique, a talented singer-actress often seen in regional theater (“Crowns,” “Spunk”) as well as in New York (“Dessa Rose,” “Ragtime”) who finally gets a spotlight of her own in “Ella.” With her beauty-parlor hair, matronly figure and happy-to-be-here smile, Fabrique evokes the maternal musical spirit of Miss Ella with remarkable skill and finesse; her must-see perf has auds grooving throughout the show’s two dozen numbers.
With a sometimes sweet, sometimes sassy soprano, Fabrique shows how it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing — or scat. Fabrique wondrously echoes rather than mimics Fitzgerald’s phenomenal ability to scat-sing, letting the language take playful flight on its own when mere words fail.
If only the creators had devised a theatrical counterpart to the freedom of that style of music. Instead they offer a fairly conventional “Ella Fitzgerald Songbook,” a reference to the series of landmark tribute recordings the singer did focusing on legendary composers. Songs she recorded are used in “Ella” as trip points to tell something about her life. Unfortunately, the narrative, which is sometimes chronologically confusing, is rather inelegantly done.
The first half of the show takes place in 1966, where, after 33 years, Fitzgerald is about to lose her record label. With this coming at the same time her beloved sister dies, Ella is feeling blue. At a recording session, her old musician pals (seasoned jazz artists George Caldwell, Longineu Parsons, Paul Brown and Arti Dixson, an expert foursome) try to lift her mood with music and she talks about her feelings — and her life.
But it’s an awkward narrative structure filled with banalities (“Maybe I got family and romance all mixed up” or “When you lose someone close it can be hard, real hard”).
Also, names, dates and circumstances often are clunkily inserted into the script: “And remember Mr. Porter?” Ella asks the band. “You mean, Cole Porter?” says the bassist The other men in her life all have explanatory descriptions supplied by the band or the singer to assist the uninitiated in the aud.
Fitzgerald’s musical world here seems hermetically sealed off from reality. With the exception of one incident where she and her band are bounced from an airplane in favor of white passengers, there’s little cultural, racial or political context to her story.
The second half of the show tales place in concert. Here Ella speaks more openly to the aud, though one could question if the private singer would ever be so revelatory about her personal life. Still, we’re in good hands with Fabrique, and she makes the singer’s sudden openness about her life and career believable.
As interesting as her story may or may not be, it is the music — and Fabrique — that save the day. Singing full out, Fabrique masters Fitzgerald’s caressing glides, the girlish flourishes, the voice that is comfort soul food for the ears
If reworked further, “Ella” could find a place in the cottage industry of perennial musical bio-shows that bring beloved entertainers back to life. At the very least, it’s a wondrous vehicle for an extraordinary performer who may finally have found a groove and a spotlight of her own.