By Jeffrey Hatcher
Conceived by Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison
Presented by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
A Tisket, a Tasket– only the marvelous vocals of Ella Fitzgerald could turn a children’s play song about losing a yellow basket into a scat-wielding marvel and only the unassumingly delightful Tina Fabrique could make it swing. In this upbeat, sassy production Ella, at the newly revamped temporary home of Arena Stage, Ms. Fabrique hits her stride channeling the energy and pizzazz of legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald with enough bee-bop to shimmy across the innovatively designed new stage.
Like Arena’s earlier songstress production (Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill), Ella is essentially a one-woman show that doesn’t feel like it. Co-conceived by director Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison, book by Jeffrey Hatcher, Ella is decently crafted to depict the woman behind the legend of this notoriously private chanteuse.
Asked by her manager Norman Ganz (solid portrayal by Harold Dixon) to include more “patter” about her life, Ella starts to reminisce to herself. Toughened and wizened from an early age by her mother’s death and hints of abuse from living in the house with her step-father, Ella struck out on her own–shy, alone and not particularly pretty — but she pushed past her own insecurities with sheer gut and will power. Survival was the key, and the reminiscences recount how she hurled herself past each barrier, getting bruised and a bit battered along with the way, but never backing off form her unrelenting drive to perform, no matter what. Driven to succeed and excel, Ella hit the road with a vengeance. Being onstage helped her escape solitude, find solace from heartache, heartbreak, personal turmoil, inner demons, even confines of motherhood-something she thought she ached for all her life. The production provides a nicely nuanced portrayal of this complicated woman who could apparently be pit-bull tough in negotiations while swinging red hot jazz with the coolest cats in the business.
And what better performer to make it all work than Tina Fabrique who originated the role and has been the artist of choice in numerous productions. It doesn’t take long to figure out why. Performing Ella requires sensitive dramatic portrayal to bring the character to life. As we saw in her recent standout performance as Mattie in Women of Brewster Place, Ms. Fabrique has a unique ability to understand the core of her character and deliver a trusted and honest portrayal. Even when the writing is somewhat thin, she fleshed out the essence of Ella from the sketchy material, and helped us care about this enigmatic character who otherwise would only be known in old footage. Fabrique delivers a stunning portrayal of a person who surpassed insurmountable odds to achieve fame, fortune and stardom, balancing the glamour with her gritty behind the scenes reality and the devastating effects of the price she paid along the way.
And then, there is that voice. Fabrique is a deliberate force of nature, not in a mega- loud, belt-out sort of way. Yes, she’s got the soul-stirring gospel volume, but she’s also a virtuoso able to play with the sounds, hitting notes with crystal clarity over two octaves. Fabrique has a rich, resonating timbre in the lower register, with crests and undulating waves of emotion, which she balances with perfectly pitched high “scat” notes. Whether she’s on the floor wailing in despair or energetically prancing along the stage waving that characteristic handkerchief, Ella style, Fabrique hits all the marks with an energy level and passionate drive of foot-stomping appeal. She ends the first act with a rendition of “That Old Black Magic” with ferocious intensity fueled by emotional turmoil, that’s absolutely stunning.
Just when you wondered how she could top that, the second act is her actual performance-name in lights, glamorously designed gown, sets bathed in exquisitely designed lighting, which ratchets up the impact of the entire production to new heights.
And here’s where the rest of the performance ensemble elevates the production beyond a one-person show. Fabrique plays off the energy of the four-piece band who also participate in some of the theatrical scenes in shadowy profile, disembodied voices, and even theatrical stand ins; Elmer Brown’s fun Louis Armstrong rendition demonstrates the ensemble’s well-rounded artistry. There are also nicely turned passages and effective depictions of Ella’s dear sister Frances, her beloved band leader Chick Webb, and the troubled relationship with her adopted son, Ray, Jr.
The production designers (set by Michael Schweikardt, lighting by John Lasiter, costume by Alejo Vietti) have all worked on Broadway and it shows. The raised, multi-tiered set goes from plainly lit rehearsal space in the first Act, to shimmering, iridescent draped with delicate swags of fabric, even down to a sparkling ballroom disco ball. That Arena has been able to chisel those gorgeous effects out of what was once an old auditorium narrow platform stage is enough to bring faith to the unbelievers–there must have been some higher theatrical power helping behind the scenes to make it all happen – on time.
The excitement on opening night was palpable- the production did justice to such tried and true classics as “Night and Day,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay,””‘S Wonderful,” “Cheek to Cheek,” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” from the likes of Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, the Gershwins, and Irving Berlin.
Opening the Arena “restaged” space with the timeless and classy appeal of Ella Fitzgerald featuring Tina Fabrique was a perfect move for a truly s’wonderful and marvelous good time.
Running Time: 2:00
When: Thru February 24. Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00pm, Saturday-Sunday matinees 2:00 pm.
Where: Newly renovated temporary space for Arena Stage, 1800 South Bell, Crystal City, VA
Listen here as Joel Markowitz interviews Tina Fabrique