The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is concluding its mainstage season on a high note with Ella, a touring production themed around the life and music of legendary jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. As staged by Rob Ruggiero, this two-hour play-within-a-concert that has been making the rounds of regional theaters is polished and professional in every possible sense. A slick set, lovingly lit. A rich, full sound. For older viewers, hearing these classic songs that are forever linked with Fitzgerald's titanic career should be an evocative delight. For younger viewers Ella could be an eye- and ear-opening primer about an era when the lyric was endowed with keen powers of persuasion.
Tina Fabrique, who portrays Fitzgerald, succeeds in creating an effective finger-snapping portrait that suggests Ella without impersonating her. Fabrique scats like Ella, she sings bebop. One moment she becomes the fifth instrument in a spirited jazz quintet; a moment later she shifts gears and hushes her way through a torch song. But Fabrique is not merely a stylist; she is an actress. Through her varied renditions, she steers us through an astonishing array of styles and emotions.
Ella plays out on a single day in July 1966, the same week that Fitzgerald's beloved older sister died. During a rehearsal for a sold-out concert in France, the 49-year-old First Lady of Song reviews her life aloud as she strives to come up with patter for the performance later that evening. This contrived premise doesn't really hurt Ella, but it doesn't enhance it either, because it skirts the true significance of why and how Fitzgerald's music had an impact on our lives. The show's book reduces a mysterious alchemy to the level of domestic melodrama.
The shallow script was written by the ubiquitous Jeffrey Hatcher (Tuesdays with Morrie, A Picasso). Once again Hatcher's insights seem to be a mile wide and an inch deep. His writing rarely gets to the heart of the matter, never burrows into an emotion. His dialogue always has a sense of rush about it, as if he's trying to meet a deadline. For this outing his obvious prose is simply not on a par with the sublime words in the carefully crafted lyrics of Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter. They are Ella's true authors.
Early in Act One, Ella is told by her manager (Harold Dixon), "Your audience comes to listen." The manager is right, but he's talking about music, not plot. Hatcher's mundane story line does not sustain interest; any artificial suspense, for instance, as to whether or not the distraught Ella is going to appear at her Nice concert falls flat. We know she will. Why? Because she can't not perform. Ella would do well to eliminate some of the factoids about Fitzgerald and instead focus on her needs and wants, which are the universal needs and wants of a creative artist.
So the real story here is music — music as a refuge, music as a release. Ultimately these two dozen songs are performed with such joy by Fabrique (who is supported by a sensational four-piece combo) that — were it not for the presence of a six-foot-high neon sign that hangs over the stage reminding us of the show's title — Fitzgerald would run the risk of becoming a supporting character in her own story.
Because here's the truth of it: Although the audience arrives at the Rep expecting to see a show about Ella, we find, somewhat to our surprise, that we are responding as much to Fabrique as to Fitzgerald. She too is an artist. What we learn about artistry, we learn from hearing her sing, not from the dialogue she is forced to utter. Because the dazzling glow of Fabrique's virtuosity is so enthralling, it's only fitting that by evening's end she cuts loose with the Gershwin standard "Lady Be Good." This lady be very, very good indeed.