When the spotlight hits Freda Payne in the opening number, its dusty light swirling around her evoking a club atmosphere, you could swear the first lady of song has been reincarnated. Payne not only sings in Ella’s key, she scats and lets her hands move as if pulling notes out of the air. Payne even looks like Ella, in great part thanks to the wizardry of costume designer Scotty Sherman, who has draped the trim songstress in dark-colored, well-padded, mostly long gowns shot through with sparkles. Most of all, Payne bears a mysterious, “lady-like” quality I remember when I encountered Ella Fitzgerald in several concerts in her latter years.
Payne is nothing short of marvelous, and she not only carries the show, she just keeps on singing through what is a musical journey – fearlessly, indomitably. It seemed like that first lady of song – and this lady – could do it all, from fronting Duke Ellington’s band in his trademark “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” and sweet yearning ballads like “The Nearness of You,” to bebop and Broadway. She could beat the boys at their own game, swiping songs like “Mack the Knife” right out from under their noses and charging them with her own brand of tough. She even took a turn as her own lyricist in numbers like a “A Tisket A Tasket” and “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll have to Swing It.”
Payne gets some wonderful support, most significantly from William Knowles, who has been a mainstay of Producing Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin’s annual tribute to some great African American icons. The Griffin-Knowles team have carved out a special niche at MetroStage by offering shows every season that bring to life the music and times of important performing pioneers, and they do it with a clean, paired-down staging and authentic, impeccable musicianship that bespeaks of serious craft and stylistic understatement.
Whether it’s Josephine Baker (Josephine Tonight,) Charlie Parker (Ladies Swing the Blues) or Sammy Davis Jr. (Cool Papa’s Party,) for which Knowles deservedly won a Helen Hayes for his Musical Direction and Director/choreographer Maurice Hines for Outstanding Choreography, these shows attract a growing following as they keep the spotlight on the artists who inspired the works and the performers who interpret them.
Here Knowles has re-joined with Maurice Hines, a performing legend in his own right, who together brought the Josephine Baker work to MetroStage. Hines conceived and directs the show to feature the musicians who worked with Ella.
Knowles on piano and his musicians not only serve up musically but perform roles as members of Ella’s band, including Yusef Chisholm on bass, who takes a turn as Ray Brown, Ella’s second husband. They are joined by Greg Holloway on drums, Grant Langford on saxophone, and Doug Pierce on trumpet. There is nothing lean about the sound of this five-man combo. The music cooks for two solidly-packed acts.
Wynonna Smith doubles as Young Ella and Ella’s younger sister, Frances. As the poor raggedy Ella, she gets to sing a little and break out in some energetic street dancing, displaying both the magnetic personality and the tough grit of the girl. Roz White has a commanding stage presence as Georgiana, Ella’s cousin, touring companion and backstage Girl Friday, and gets to deliver some of the best zingers of the evening. Her character helps us understand better the complexity of Ella’s character, as Georgiana struggles to support the successful and driven Ella, while feeling the pinch in the way her own life has been boxed in. Tom Wiggins plays Norman Granz, the man who would become Miss Fitzgerald’s producer.
I only wish there had been more “there there” for the three artists. Wiggins probably gets the most short-changed by not being able to play a scene in the whole first act, but simply marching downstage repeatedly to ask an imaginary white producer in the audience whether his venue would break the color bar.
Director Hines and writer Lee Summers have taken an unusual, if often poignant, trip down Memory Lane, in which “place” becomes the theme and glue of the piece, more important than the supporting characters themselves. From her break at age fifteen winning Amateur Night at the Apollo, and then from the Savoy to the Cote d’Azur, the script takes us all on tour with Ella, through performance venue after venue, sometimes skipping back and forth in time.
The setting by Carl Gudenius consists of a sliding screen that periodically, and not satisfyingly, closes off the band, a frame circled with lights and little dressing table, and a larger frame high on the back wall where old still photographs with titles and dates are projected.
I realized just a few minutes into the show that the auditoriums that are so featured were also venues where Maurice and his late brother Gregory probably also played. The show has the feel of being an homage to the performing circuit that once was, a world that Maurice had lived in and wanted to make come alive for the audience by conjuring the special magic in the halls’ names. Each place symbolized a rung in ascendancy to assure these hardworking pioneers they’d arrived.
Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song
Closes March 16, 2014
1201 North Royal Street
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $55 – $60
Thursdays thru Sundays
Nonetheless, the script, to my mind, could use more dramatic meat on its bones. Too often, all the characters had to serve up was exposition rather than reveal character and story through relationships and interactions. Occasionally, Payne and the musicians showed that they were less comfortable with the words than making music, and I attribute that in part to some awkwardness in the writing.
I left the show with more questions than I came. Primarily, how did such a rough-and-tumble street kid grow up to be not only a great singer –perhaps America’s greatest – but more strikingly a woman who not only defied poverty and the racism which threatened to keep her down but exuded such international command and class?
Maybe what we hang onto is the music. Ella was one of a kind. And getting down to MetroStage to see this show is as close – and, thanks to Payne, as good – as it gets.
Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song . Conceived and Directed by Maurice Hines . Book by Lee Summers . Music Direction by William Knowles . Featuring Freda Payne, Wynonna Smith, Roz White and Tom Wiggins . Produced by MetroStage . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.