Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald died in 1996 at the age of 79, but that's not apparent to audiences spending an evening at the Cincinnati Playhouse, where Tina Fabrique is bringing her back to vibrant, tuneful life in Ella, singing nearly two dozen numbers made famous by The First Lady of Song.
Fabrique has made this show and role her own: This is the 12th time she's performed it since the show premiered at Arizona Theatre Company early in 2007. And with good reason.
While Fabrique bears some resemblance physically to Fitzgerald, she has the ability to capture her style completely in each number, classics from the Great American Songbook. From heartfelt renditions of songs like "I'll Never Be the Same" and Cole Porter's "Night and Day" to bouncier pieces such as the Gershwins' "S Wonderful" and Fitzgerald's own nursery-rhyme rewrite "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," Fabrique channels the Jazz vocalist's powerful stage presence and especially her scat singing. You'll hear every word of every song.
Director Rob Ruggiero spent three years assembling this production, working with playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (familiar to Cincinnati audiences with numerous Playhouse productions from Scotland Road in 1993 to last season's Murderers) to generate a script that threads the songs together. Fitzgerald never suffered the demons of alcohol and drugs that fueled singers like Billie Holliday or Judy Garland — she was often termed "the good one," so her story doesn't have much drama.
Hatcher's script places her at a concert in Nice, France, in 1966, a week after the death of her beloved half-sister Frances. Her manager (played by Harold Dixon) has convinced her to proceed, dropping a number from her set to make room for "patter" — the small talk with an audience that other singers handle with ease but that came only with difficulty to the shy Fitzgerald.
She suffers some angst over whether her estranged son (actually Frances' child) will attend, but that's about as much drama as this production can muster.
Fitzgerald's "patter" is a useful conceit to provide her back-story. For instance, we learn how she aspired to be a dancer and earned a nickname, "Snake Hips," for her work outside a dance hall. But such details are not the show's most interesting elements, although it's instructive to learn how her career was launched by a talent competition at Harlem's Apollo Theater while she was still a teenager.
The four excellent musicians who form the quartet backing Fabrique — George Caldwell (piano/conductor), Thaddeus Wilson (trumpet), Rodney Harper (drums) and Clifton Kellem (bass) — voice the parts of various men in the singer's life, but acting isn't their forte. Only Wilson, a trumpeter whose performance proves how an instrument can virtually become a character, is remarkable in a set of tunes when he reincarnates Jazz legend Louis Armstrong, both as a colorful singer and an accomplished musician.
From start to finish, the music is what captivates. Late in life, Fitzgerald remarked, "To know that you loved me for my singing is too much for me. Forgive me if I don't have all the words. Maybe I can sing it and you'll understand." That's exactly what Fabrique does.
Fitzgerald once said, "The only thing better than singing is more singing." That's what makes Ella worth watching.
And by the way, don't rush out of the theater when you think it's over. Fabrique brings Ella back for one final number, "Oh, Lady Be Good." And that she is.
ELLA, presented by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through May 25. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.