‘Ella’ brings legend’s life to Annenberg Center

March 15, 2011

Tuesday, 15 March 2011 16:11 by Rita Charleston
Philadelphia Tribune Correspondent

Dubbed “The First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald was probably the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for more than half a century. In her lifetime, she won 13 Grammy Awards, and sold over 40 million albums.

And now, “Ella,” the highly-acclaimed musical about the life of the legendary singer comes to the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts for a limited engagement March 22-27. Featuring Broadway veteran Tina Fabrique, the production captures the spirit and exuberance Fitzgerald was known for, and features such memorable songs as “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” “That Old Black Magic,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and many more.

According to Fabrique, the setting is Nice, France, in 1966 when Fitzgerald was 51 years old and marked a pivotal moment in Fitzgerald’s career, both professionally and emotionally. In the show, members of the band double as characters in Fitzgerald’s life and career, including Louis Armstrong, Chick Webb and Fitzgerald’s husband Ray Brown.

“Ella had a beautiful voice and was a true musician,” Fabrique says. “But nobody knows the real story of a career that lasted some 60 years, so this is our attempt to open up her life for the audience. We introduce you to the men who made a big difference in her life. And we explain that she had a very difficult childhood so the audience gets to see and understand it for themselves, as well as her climb up the ladder of success.”

Fabrique’s own climb was not as difficult, she admits. A native of Harlem, Fabrique says she first saw the fabulous Fitzgerald when her parents took her to the Apollo when she was just 12 years old.

“When I was that young I didn’t realize how difficult her musical abilities were,” Fabrique remembers. “But listening to her perfectly beautiful voice scat-singing amazed me. It stayed in my mind. And as I grew older, and taught some master classes in jazz, I always told young people to listen to Ella to know what true music sounds like.”

Fabrique not only listened well, but much later got a chance to play the singer in this production which she’s played before in regional theaters for the past six years. It premiered at Hartford Theatre Works in 2005. Fabrique has been honored with the 2007 Carbonell Award as Best Actress in a Musical for the Florida Stage engagement of “Ella,” and has been nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for Best Lead Actress in a Musical at Arena Stage.

Her Broadway credits include “Ragtime,” “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk,” “How to Succeed…” “Harlem Song” and others.

She also has numerous national tours to her credit, was the featured soloist with The Duke Ellington Orchestra for several years, is the original voice of the Reading Rainbow theme song, and has appeared in many television shows.

When Fabrique first voiced her musical ambitions to her parents, they weren’t too crazy about the idea. “My father especially, who is Caribbean, said that singing and dancing wouldn’t put food on the table. Maybe he was right but I had no choice. I know how to do lots of other things but I had to sing. I knew I had the talent. It’s a gift from God, I utilized it, and made a place for myself in the world with it.”

“For me,” she concludes, “singing is a form of expression. It’s a satisfactory feeling about finding your own niche, your place in the world. And, of course, all that love and adoration that comes from an audience feels just wonderful.”