On its opening night at the O’Reilly Theater, “Ella” received not one, but two standing ovations. It could have received three. That’s how memorable and entertaining the show is. From the stage presence of Tina Fabrique, who stars as Ella Fitzgerald, to the synchronicity of the jazz band that backs her up, to the whimsical, luminous set that makes you feel part of the world Ella made with her voice, the show is a hit. From the opening tune, Fabrique wrapped the audience around her little finger with her second-to-none vocals and ability to capture all the gestures, body movement, and the unique voice that made Fitzgerald internationally adored. Whether you closed your eyes or kept them open, you’d pinch yourself in wonderment about whether it was Fabrique on that stage, or “the First Lady of Song,” herself.
TINA FABRIQUE AS ELLA FITZGERALD
The show was co-conceived by Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison, while Ruggiero also directed, and brought in playwright Jeffrey Hatcher to enhance the script. It was a joint effort to masterfully merge Fitzgerald’s life with her music, which is well-suited, considering the singer lived her life on stage, and seems to have taken much of her pain on stage with her.
Set in a concert hall in Nice, France, a week after the death of Fitzgerald’s sister, the show is a tour de force of Fitzgerald’s life behind the curtain, when no one was cheering for her. While much is known about the voice of Fitzgerald, little is known about her private suffering, from being arrested and sent to an orphanage as a child, to being abused by her stepfather. “Ella” reveals Fitzgerald’s struggle with criticism that she was neither pretty nor petite enough, and that all her worth was in that great mountain of a voice, clear and perfect as a Caribbean sea. Fitzgerald’s critics took no notice of the singer’s wide smile, the twinkle in her almond-shaped eyes, or the loveliness of her caramel skin. But Fabrique captures the singer’s inner and outer beauty, and re-imagines her as the phoenix that rises from the ashes in triumphant fashion.
The show features over 20 songs that Fitzgerald performed, including favorites like “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing);” “A-Tisket, a Tasket;” and “The Man I Love.” As you listen to Fabrique sing Ella’s tunes, this is what happens to you. First, your heart pulls tightly on itself, starting at its bottommost tip. Second, you are lulled into a cocoon of pretty sounds and vocal power reserved for only a talented few. Finally, after it is all over, you breathe out a satisfied sigh, because by then, you are in awe. After the song is finished, you will be caught between wanting more and applauding, stomping, or shouting, as many audience members did, because you will have recognized that, in the tradition of Fitzgerald, Fabrique has laid her heart and soul out like a canvas, then colored it with her own titanic of a voice.
The show also stars George Caldwell (Moe Gale/Pianist); Harold Dixon (Norman Granz, Fitzgerald’s manager); Rodney Harper (Chick Webb/Drummer); and Ron Haynes (Louis Armstrong/Trumpet Player). If you are a fan of Ella Fitzgerald or if you want to learn about why she continues to translate in the 21st century, this is the show to see. If you love jazz and seasoned musicians who know how to rock a house, you won’t find a better show anywhere. The show runs until Nov. 1. For tickets, visit ppt.org, or call 412-316-1600.