"Ella," the season-opening play at Pittsburgh Public Theater, bears some resemblance to an older production about Billie Holiday, but it ends on a happier note.
By Scott Beveridge
PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Ella Fitzgerald doesn’t do chatting between songs, a gimmick that is better suited to such performers as "Lady Day" Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra.
Holiday has something interesting to say on stage because she’s lived through more than enough drama with a drug addiction and string of bad men to drip melancholy with the blues, according to a play underway in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Fitzgerald is known as “the good one” because she never captures headlines for making bad choices, says actress Tina Fabrique, who lends her perfect-pitched voice to “Ella,” a hit play that is opening the 2009-10 season at Pittsburgh Public Theater.
“Lady Day does patter,” Fabrique said while her character’s manager urges her to cut a song in an upcoming concert lineup to make time to talk to the audience in Nice, France.
It’s 1966, two days after Fitzgerald buried her beloved sister, Frances, and the crowd not only wants to hear her voice, but needs to know if she’s OK, the manager, Norman Granz, explains during rehearsals.
Directed and co-conceived by Rob Ruggiero, the Public’s showing of “Ella” is the 20th time this two-act play has gone to production since it’s world premier in 2005 at TheaterWorks in Hartford, Conn.
There can be no doubt that Ruggiero’s “Ella” draws its inspiration from “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” a play about jazz singer Billie Holiday by Lanie Robertson that took the stage at the Public in 1995.
Both stories are told in similar fashion between songs about black women who crossed racial boundaries to make hit records. But while “Lady Day” that starred Debra Tidwell is a story about self destruction, “Ella” leaves the stage on a good note and without the singer having to turn to heroin to get through the show.
And, Fabrique seems to channel the late Fitzgerald with every slight degree.
The first act takes the audience to the rehearsal for the Nice concert where Fabrique is wearing an ordinarily black dress suited for a funeral. It doesn’t take long, though, for the story line to reveal some of Fitzgerald’s darkest moments that defined her sultry voice and made her the “First Lady of Song.”
The story touches on the time Fitzgerald spent in a New York reform school after her mother died young, how she escaped it only to be molested by her stepfather and then went to work for a pimp dancing on the street to lure customers into his brothel.
A new manager – Norman Granz – eventually helps to make Ella a star by encouraging her to sing scat, or improvised music where random syllables mimic the sounds of the instruments.
“I’m no glamor puss Mr. Granz but I will sing you songs that barely have a word,” she says at the prospect of playing Carnegie Hall.
Fitzgerald would go on to perform on that esteemed New York stage 26 times before her death in 1996 at 81 from complications of heart disease and diabetes.
Meanwhile, Fabrique belts out 23 Fitzgerald favorites in vocal a range that allows the audience to pretend for just two hours that maybe Ella is still alive.
Her version of “Something to Live For” is the song from this show to remember.
It comes near the end when Ella – dressed in a sparkling blue ballgown - cries uncontrollably over the loss of a sister, while also acknowledging her shortcomings as a mother. The spotlight shifts to a fantastic trumpet player, Ron Haynes, only to reappear moments later on the star at the microphone after she regains her composure, knowing the stage is her one true love.
Fabrique takes the song home, delivering Ella on stage in a performance that is worth seeing a second time before the final curtain is drawn November 1 on this production.
More info: www.ppt.org or 412-316-1600.