Ella,book by Jeffrey Hatcher, conceived by Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison, music supervision and arrangements by Danny Holgate. Directed by Tim Fort.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"It’s just the nearness of you."
What I don’t know about Ella Fitzgerald could probably fill volumes. I know I love her voice and her way with a lyric. I truly love her faithfulness to a song as written on her many "songbook" recordings. I love the way she scats and the loving duets she recorded with Louis Armstrong, including their double LP album of "Porgy and Bess." I adore the way she dances in the back of a bus in an Abbott & Costello movie while singing her song "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." What I don’t know about her - after seeing this show about her life - could probably fill volumes. . .still.
The Weston Playhouse is presenting this relatively new musical about Fitzgerald preparing for a difficult concert appearance in Nice, France in 1966. It’s not a "Funny Girl" type musical with a new score. Instead there are twenty-one standards sung in typical late Fitzgerald style, a bit jazzy, a bit too much scat and an echoey delay in the return to the written note as she sings. The first act presents her in rehearsal for the concert, and the second takes place during the concert. It includes the requisite encore. That’s the framework for the show.
Her manager and producer, Norman Granz, is trying the change the format Fitzgerald normally uses in her concerts. He wants her to open up, to use some patter between songs to reveal a bit of herself to her audience; she is reluctant; she likes to guard her privacy and her private life, to separate her relationship side from her fans and from her work. But circumstances have changed suddenly. She has no man in her life, her sister Frances has just died and her son, Ray, Jr., has turned his back on her emotionally and physically. She is almost ready to talk, needs to talk and talk she does.
There is the premise of a show that entertains and enthrall more than it enlightens. That may be simply because her story seems so unreal when compared to the tales told of other black singers of her generation who undergo numerous humiliations on their way to the way to the top. Ella Fitzgerald doesn’t have to remove herself from the drudgery of cleaning house for prostitutes, of being a prostitute, of skipping from one drug experience to another or from one boozed out failure to the next. She is not Lady Day (Billie Holiday) and she is not Sweet Mama Stringbean (Ethel Waters) and she is not another Ma Rainey whose sexual exploits are as famous as her songs. Ella is a nice girl with a nice life and a sweet enough outcome. The only real drama, as presented in this show is her struggle for normalcy in a world that is anything but normal as she tours for six months at a time and never sees the family she loves.
Weston is fortunate. They have a very talented company led by Joilet F. Harris as Ella Fitzgerald. Here is a singing actress who can take a very memorable character, present her to a public that certainly remembers the real Ella and make that audience buy into the image presented as being the "real thing." Certainly her singing of songs like "How High the Moon" and "S’Wonderful," and "Something to Live For" are as close to real as one could ever expect. Harris’ rendition of the scat edition of "Flying Home" is a brilliant realization of character in song. Her voice comes close to Ella’s but doesn’t completely resemble the famous singer’s tone or her uniquely non-racial quality, an almost classic middle-American accented sound.
Harris also has to carry off the speaking Ella Fitzgerald and from the films she made and the footage of her that exists from television appearances there is no true resemblance here to the original, but why should an actress have to simply mimic to present? She is playing Fitzgerald and not morphing into her. As an actress, then, the question remains does she portray the true Ella Fitzgerald. From some minimal research this reviewer must say that she comes as close to the truth as the script will allow. Vocally, visually, orally Joilet F. Harris is an ideal choice to play Ella Fitzgerald and she delivers a solid performance that should be seen and enjoyed.
David Bonanno plays her manager, record producer Norman Granz. In his brief scenes he does everything possible to bring Granz to vital life, but there is something missing here and it seems to be the spark that ignited a career. It’s not in the words or the actions and that may be true for several reasons: the script keeps his character shallow; the director hasn’t pushed the issue of presence on the stage; Bonanno understands that Harris is the only star in this show and must be shown professional deference. Whatever the reason, Bonanno turns in a decent if thin performance of a dynamic individual, a force of nature who nourished a lengthy international career. A play about the two of them, and just the two of them, could be thrilling.
The band members all play roles, the finest being the Louis Armstrong presented by trumpeter Thad Wilson. In the second act he duets with Harris on two classic numbers and the show, which was already on fire, burst into rare and beautiful flame as the two traded vocal lines and interacted brilliantly.
Fine touches like this depend on the eye of a fine director and Tim Fort does admirable work here. Throughout the show he keeps us focused and manages to keep his actress on the mark whether or not she is singing.
Blair Mielnik has designed very functional sets and Collette Benoit has turned out two credible costumes for Ella and the right clothing for everyone else. Lighting Designer Kendall Smith uses light in the first act to emphasize emotional distancing and the powerful dynamics of music. His shafts of light on musicians and on rear scrim panels as well as on the singer herself make strong statements and always seem to complement the work being done up front near the microphone.
This is a most unusual bioplay and one worth seeing if you can find your way up to Weston, Vermont. Need another reason to go, well, The Vermont Country Store is down the block and the store across the road features fine cheese at excellent prices as well as a remarkable root beer fudge. But the centerpiece is this show and its leading lady. In spite of some inevitable bitterness in the script, the Lady emerges as more than just a Lady. Ella is a Lady of high quality and worth getting to know.
Joilet F. Harris as Ella; photo: provided
Ella Duets with Satchmo (Thad Wilson); photo provided
Ellaplays at the Weston Playhouse on the square off Route 100 in Weston, Vermont through July 28. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-824-5288 or check out their website at www.westonplayhouse.org.