'Ella' review: Giving voice to a legend
First, the voice.
To create a musical about the life of Ella Fitzgerald, forget her biography. Forget the songbook spanning two-thirds of the 20th century. Forget even the musicians, who were as much family to her as her real family. Without a voice that evokes melted chocolate with its teasingly smooth highs and lows -- without, in short, Ella -- you have nothing.
Because of Tina Fabrique, we can say that "Ella," now making its New York premiere at Queens Theatre, has something. Who would guess the voice we heard on the theme to PBS' "Reading Rainbow" could pass for Ella Fitzgerald's? Fabrique almost becomes Fitzgerald on the Gershwins' "They Can't Take That Away From Me" or Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing." For fans of Fitz -- as her friends called her -- Fabrique's vocal interpretation alone is worth the price of admission.
I saw Ella Fitzgerald in concert relatively late in her career, but before age and diabetes ravaged her gift. Fabrique, who resembles Fitzgerald in her middle years -- the musical is set in 1966 when she was 49 -- cannot match Ella's flawless intonation. Who could? There are hints of vibrato on high notes, of digging deep in lower registers. But on bebop scats, as in "Oh, Lady Be Good," she sounds improvisational and free-spirited.
Fitzgerald's story, told through a format conceived by director Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison (book by Jeffrey Hatcher, musical supervision by Danny Holgate), transports us to Nice, France, where she's rehearsing for a concert following a family funeral. Her manager, patiently played by Chris McHale, insists that she engage in "patter" with the audience. We get more than we need to know. Fitzgerald tells us of sexual abuse by her stepfather after her mother's death, of her half-sister's unconditional love, and of the men with whom she encountered professional success and personal failure.
But she remained closest to her band. "Ella's" onstage musicians -- George Caldwell, Sabu Adeyola, Rodney Harper and Ron Haynes (impersonating Louis Armstrong, whose home is just across the Grand Central) -- step in as the men in her life. In Act II, they turn the Nice concert into a musical release of her demons. Fitzgerald's life -- she was the "good girl" of jazz -- is less compelling, for all its unexpected drama, than her perfect voice.
WHEN | WHERE 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, Queens Theatre, Flushing Meadows Corona Park
TICKETS $25-$49; queenstheatre.org, 718-760-0064