A glam Freda Payne took centerstage at Broadway’s Iridium to pay homage to legendary jazz diva Ella Fitzgerald. Two years ago Payne appeared at New Brunswick’s Crossroads Theatre in a three-character, thinly disguised drama based on events in the singer’s life. That show was little more than a well-intended concert of jazz flavored pop standards. While the book show is being restructured, Payne goes the solo route in a much more flavorful and palatable concept. She sings the songs, sans script, and sails comfortably through the pages of the great American songbook with a keenly focused awareness of a revered legacy.
Payne offers a tightly structured narrative that follows Fitzgerald’s career from her 1934 award-winning Apollo Theater debut in an amateur contest to vocalist and subsequent leader of the Chick Webb band, and her concert and recording career as the protege of producer Norman Granz. But it’s the songs that tell the story, defining a singer and an era with lyrical clarity.
Looking gorgeous in a sequined sky-blue gown that boasted generous cleavage, Payne re-created Fitzgerald’s nursery novelty “A-Tisket, a-Tasket” with playful abandon and displayed a grand scatting chorus for the Gershwins’ “Lady Be Good.” She also revived Ella’s hot concert take on “Mack the Knife,” including the witty lapse in lyrics.
Defining Fitzgerald’s gift for balladry, Payne offered a reverent reading of the Gus Kahn-Walter Donaldson number “My Buddy” and an absolutely stunning take on “You’ve Changed,” a sumptuous ’40s torch song by Carl Fischer and Bill Carey.
Perhaps the most defining mix of swing and sentiment is to be found in Sam Coslow’s “Mr. Paganini,” introduced by Martha Raye in her 1938 film debut “Rhythm on the Range,” and later a Fitzgerald concert highlight. Payne nicely captured its wit, swinging tempo change and heart.
For an encore, Payne shed her Ella guise to reprise her own notable chart hit “Band of Gold.” A quartet fronted by pianist Rahm Coleman provided clean rhythmic support.