Tina Fabrique commands the house and captures the audience in ELLA

March 24, 2011

'Ella' sure can sing; the talking needs work

By Howard Shapiro

Inquirer Theater Critic

March 24, 2011

They called Ella Fitzgerald the First Lady of Song, and was she ever. She became the queen of scat singing in mid-career, reinventing her musical persona as the big-band sound was fading, and by the end she'd made her mark as both an exciting jazz vocalist and a master singer of the Great American Songbook.

"God gave this talent to me, so I just stand there and sing," she once said. The remarkable Tina Fabrique has a similar talent, and in the touring musical Ella, at the Annenberg Center through Sunday, she commands the house and captures the audience outright. In her 'do and glasses, she looks like Ella; her voice matches Ella's; and her way with a song is enveloping.

But I wish, as Ella said, that Fabrique could just stand there and sing. Ella is a tribute show with a sort-of plot that serves its purpose in the first act and no purpose in the second.

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (The Compleat Female Stage Beauty and many others) wrote the show's book. In the first half, as Ella runs through the highs and lows of her life, pinning almost every piece of narrative to "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," "I'll Never Be the Same," and other songs she made her own, Hatcher gives us just what we need: The biographical grout that holds the music together. (The Annenberg's faulty sound system did not give us what we needed for the dialogue at Tuesday's opening.)

The second half is supposed to be a concert Fitzgerald is giving in Nice, France, in 1966, immediately after someone very dear to her had died. Her manager has asked her to "do patter" on the stage. "I don't talk to the audience," she tells us.

And then she does just that, and too much of it, in a script laden with bald-faced messages to her manager that don't feel real. Too bad, because Hatcher's Ella had made herself genuine before intermission; now, we have to wonder. What's worse is Hatcher's attempt to layer a plot on this concert; in creating a feeble conflict, he has her behaving unprofessionally at the performance.

Frankly, I can't imagine it. So I tuned out the blather and stuck with the music - performed by aces: Ron Haynes on trumpet (he does a mighty fine Satchmo, too), pianist George Caldwell, drummer Rodney Harper, and Clifton Kellem on bass. Harold Dixon plays Ella's manager - and Fabrique herself plays them all; she is clearly, as she should be, the evening's focus. Toward the end, she tackles Ella's famously scatted "How High the Moon" and you can almost feel her channeling the woman.

Ella, who died at age 79 in 1996, also said: "It isn't where you came from, it's where you're going that counts." In Ella, go directly to the songs, I would say.