San Jose Rep brings Ella Fitzgerald to life in musical revue
By Marianne Messina
AFTER A snappy live version of "How High the Moon," Ella Fitzgerald's longtime manager Norman Granz (Harold Dixon) stops this "band rehearsal" to tell Ella she's going to have to "patter," that is, talk to the audience. The upcoming show is apparently Ella's Nice Jazz Festival appearance of July 1971, a couple of weeks after the death of her friend Louis Armstrong. So Ella (Tina Fabrique), working on her patter by telling biographic anecdotes, forms the frame for the biopic musical revue Ella at San Jose Repertory Theatre. Backed up by four musicians—piano (George Caldwell), drums (Rodney Harper), upright bass (Clifton Kellem) and trumpeter (Brian Sledge)—Fabrique admirably covers Ella's vocal scope from scat to velvet to belt-out and growl.
In a frumpy black rehearsal dress and Ella's legendary black-rubber-soled grandma shoes, Fabrique produces the clarity Ella is known for, including enunciation (which critics of the day called "too white") down to pronouncing the 1927 standard "'S Wonderful," as "It's Wonderful." Then, sitting in a comfortable chair, mic in hand, Fabrique also delivers Ella's mannerisms and her sometimes-retiring offstage personality.
Standing at the mic (oh, for a vintage '30s-style microphone!), Fabrique gives us girlish shyness when Ella was first discovered at 16 by the young, band-leading drum sensation Chick Webb. We also see moments of temper (at the micromanaging Granz) and moments of regret. Since the second half of the show is "the concert" itself, most of the biographical background comes in the first half. But knowing about her intimate bond with her half-sister Frances, and the son she raised, somewhat in absentia, enriches the poignancy of the second half.
Fabrique has a versatile, accurate voice, and many of the numbers show it. You get a glimpse of her range and control early on in "You'll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini)," and that returns with an extra dose of vitality in the Act 1 closer, "That Old Black Magic." In the concert half, when Ella comes out dressed in turquoise gown and sparkling jewelry, Fabrique unloads the whole bag of tricks. She does a luxuriously velvet and brooding "My Buddy," which Ella dedicates to Webb (who died at age 30 in 1939). And she kicks out on "Oh, Lady Be Good." Likewise, the band behind Fabrique is an accomplished lot, and in a hopping Louis Armstrong impersonation, trumpeter Brian "Lord" Sledge comes down from behind his music stand, does the voice, and plays a roaring trumpet solo with a soaring finish.
For swing lovers, this show leans more toward Broadway stage values—especially in the sense of staying on script, or on music—than jazz's looseness, where anything can happen, and the audience feels it. This may be due in part to forefronting Ella and putting a scrupulous rendition of her image above portraying her in the white-hot musical context of her era. The fact that heads were not bopping during the bop may say more about the crowd than the production. But the musicians' ability to ad lib like jazz heads would have come in handy the night I attended, when they had to pause due to some nasty clicks in the sound system (ghosts of uncommemorated '30s microphones wreaking revenge).
Another drawback, the band sat so far back on separate risers that the "queen of swing" seemed isolated from her subjects, sacrificing a good bit of warmth onstage. Some of that is replaced by production values, with the rounded "golden age of swing" arches doubling as light surfaces and suggesting the richest of bandstands and the beautiful color changes on a dazzling background. A neon sign glowing a royal purple, scripted "Ella" blends in stunning color palettes with silky turquoise or deep fuchsia, and the mirror ball comes out for a sweeping version of "Blue Skies." The crowd had apparently been saving up their cheers for a thunderous standing ovation that brought Ella back for an encore.
Ella, a San Jose Repertory Theatre production, plays Wednesday (except July 4) at 7:30pm, Thursday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm through July 22 at the Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $14-$56. (408.367.7255)
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