- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2008

Ella Fitzgerald may have given the world a sublime set of songbooks celebrating the music of composers Irving Berlin, the Gershwins and Cole Porter, but her life was a closed book.

Miss Fitzgerald lived for the stage and was restless without it. In a time when singers such as Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and Carmen McRae rimmed each note with heartache, hinting at the pain in their personal lives, Miss Fitzgerald kept her scatting loose and free and her lips buttoned tight.

Discreet insights into the inner life of the “first lady of song” are mined in the musical bio-play “Ella,” written by Jeffrey Hatcher and conceived by director Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison.

Nothing particularly surprising is revealed, for as in life, it is the performances of Miss Fitzgerald’s hits that give the show its emotional highs rather than the spectacle of a cultural icon spilling her guts.

Tina Fabrique, who has wowed Arena audiences in the past with her star-turns in “Crowns” and “The Women of Brewster Place,” lends her supple contralto to spot-on interpretations of Miss Fitzgerald’s signature sound that do more than merely mimic her.

Miss Fabrique’s multiple-octave range is similar to Miss Fitzgerald’s, and her voice is capable of the swoops, whoops, and aural arabesques we’ve come to associate with Miss Fitzgerald.

The astonishing thing is that she does not do rote, note-for-note impressions of Miss Fitzgerald, but gives us a robust flavor of the singer’s distinctive delivery and the progression of her sound from the early days of novelty songs and big band music to the wild and poetic scatting of bebop.

“Ella” is a musical revue loosely grouped around the flimsy premise of Miss Fitzgerald and her four-piece band (George Caldwell, piano; Elmer Brown, trumpet; Rodney Harper, drums; Clifton Kellem, bass) rehearsing and performing at a 1966 concert in Nice, France.

Miss Fitzgerald has hastily returned to the stage after the funeral of her beloved sister Frances, and at the noodging of her manager Norman Granz (Harold Dixon), she is forced to work up some between-songs “patter.”

Loath to reveal anything personal onstage, Miss Fitzgerald nevertheless warms up to the idea and starts musing about her stormy upbringing (her mother died young, and there are hints her stepfather molested her), her bad luck with men, her insecurities about her appearance and her beginnings in show business.

Anyone familiar with the scant details of Miss Fitzgerald’s offstage life and those who saw the PBS “American Masters” special on the singer will find the autobiographical aspects sketchy and somewhat gauche; at times you feel you are biding time until the next song. The musical numbers are uniformly strong, from the playful cadences of “Cow Cow Boogie” and Miss Fitzgerald’s trademark “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (here invigorated with a mambo beat) and the ballads “The Nearness of You,” “Night and Day” and “Something to Live For” to the satiny sway of standards “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “S’Wonderful.”

For the most part, the jazz combo supporting Miss Fabrique is tight, especially the subtle piano stylings of Mr. Caldwell, who also serves as conductor.

However, Mr. Brown’s trumpet strikes many sour notes, and his unfortunate Louis Armstrong imitation in the second act owes more to Sesame Street’s Grover than Satchmo.

The second act, which shows Miss Fitzgerald in concert schmoozing with the fans and even having a weepy Judy Garland moment when she sings to her estranged adopted son in the audience, loses some of the sparkle and dimension of the first half and drags the show down. Momentum is briefly regained in an emotionally charged rendition of “Blue Skies.”

The litheness of Miss Fabrique’s powerhouse vocals is reason enough to see “Ella,” even if the show could have used more decorum, which characterized Miss Fitzgerald’s music and public life, and less Sturm und Drang, which didn’t.

**1/2

WHAT: “Ella,” book by Jeffrey Hatcher, conceived by Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison

WHERE: Arena Stage in Crystal City, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 24.

TICKETS: $55 to $74

PHONE: 202/488-3300

WEB SITE: www.arenastage.org

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