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MetroStage Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song

By • Jan 29th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song
MetroStage: (Info) (Web)
MetroStage Theater, Alexandria, VA
Through March 16th, 2014
2:15 with intermission
$55-$60 (Plus Fees)
Reviewed January 26th, 2013

Get this destination into your car’s navigation system; MetroStage. You don’t want to miss out on the admirable production of Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song featuring Freda Payne. This tight musical biography of Ella Fitzgerald, conceived and directed by Maurice Hines, is a tuneful journey into the timeless American Song Book as stylized by Miss Ella Fitzgerald. With the book by Lee Summers, the show charts Fitzgerald’s long performing life on stage as an effervescent singer with a style all her own, as well as her private hard-knock life.

Powered by nearly 30 songs, the show chronicles Fitzgerald’s life through a series of flashbacks. The book feels, and the actors provide, more than just a veneer of historical facts. The production moves from her life as a shy, unrooted 15-year-old to become a winner of an amateur night talent contest at the famed Apollo in Harlem in 1934, to her work with the legendary band leader Chick Webb at the Savoy Ballroom, to performing at a Cote D’Azur jazz club in the south of France in the mid 1960’s. The show also pinpoints a number of seminal events and people in her life.

Ella provides an understanding of how Fitzgerald personified an entertainer whose fans could cross racial and social boundaries both in the United States and around the World. It gives a glimpse into her winning and resilient personality. It provides an essence of Fitzgerald as someone who soothed private hurts and self-doubt with performances before an appreciative live audience. There is sufficient theatrical connective tissue that the production is not merely a concert with a spotlight, a standing microphone and a performer.

Payne possesses a multiple octave range reminiscent of Fitzgerald that your reviewer remembers from his own more youthful days and recordings. She brings a felt joy to her singing and a “center” to her acting. She has a rhythm, style and phrasing in her vocals that smoothly moves around and into songs that range from the Big Band Swing era to the quite different tempo and nuance of the Bebop sounds after World War II and into the Mad Men Era.

When singing cute songs such as “A Tisket, A Tasket” or “Goody Goody” Payne’s face, body movement and delivery are like a big open bright smile. With ballads such as “The Man I Love”, or “The Nearness of You” she brought a hush to the audience as the lights dimmed and it was just her breathing slowly, wistfully, her heart on her sleeve. With swing numbers such as “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing” or “Sweet Georgia Brown” she had a wonderfully lively bounce with each word and syllable. If your reviewer could have danced he would have, but he settled for tapping his foot unobserved.

“You’ve Changed” sung in a duet by Payne with the on-stage string bassist Yusef Chisholm in the role of jazz bassist Ray Brown who was Fitzgerald’s husband. Their duet is a sung-through, back-and-forth, husband-and-wife verbal spat.

Ella Fitzgerald’s legendary scat singing was in full force for the entire evening thanks to Payne’s good chops. Payne’s scat work is a treasure as she imitating horns and brass or using nonsense words, sounds and syllables. It appeared all so effortless, though we all know better that rehearsal after rehearsal makes such a performance appear effortless.

In a stroke of well-honed theatrical instinct Hines has Payne perform the legendary “Mack the Knife” ala Fitzgerald who “forgot” some of the words at a concert in Berlin. Payne closed her eyes and launched into an amusing, far from the usual cynic’s rendering of the Brecht’s masterpiece. As she “forgot” words she filled some of the vocal spaces with references to other singers of those days such as Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong who performed up-tempo versions of “Mack.”

Under the confident, solid, handiwork of musical director William Knowles, the five-member band is a swingin’, free wheeling, right on the money group. They moved through the strong percussive rhythms of swing music propelling along under Payne’s vocals; and then launched into the distinct tempo and riffs of Bebop.

Featured with Payne is Wynonna Smith in two roles; the young Ella and as half-sister Frances. She is a skylark when she sings and her presence as young Ella is one of sweet, endearing enthusiastic fortitude. Smith has performed on Broadway and locally at Arena Stage. Helen Hayes awardee Roz White is a veteran of MetroStage productions including last year’s Gee’s Bend. In Ella she is Georgina, a cousin of Fitzgerald’s who is the solid presence in her life and travails. She is the one always there, no matter what the public or private turmoil. Tom Wiggin is Norman Granz, a man of moxey with a quiet determined “bulldozer” approach to bringing jazz to wider audiences and ending segregation in the entertainment industry. He acts with a deliberate mien and without raising a voice as he takes on the powers of the time to create the celebrated touring Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. Wiggin has had a long career in television in “As the World Turns” as well as film and stage work.

The MetroStage set by Carl Gudenius does what it has to give dramatic action to the proceedings. There is a small family area with table and chairs at audience left, a cramped dressing room with glass-mirror at audience right and a center stage a bandstand. Scotty Sherman’s costumes for Payne are a variety of gorgeous evening sparkling evening pencil dresses that show off her figure, capped off with little bolero-style jackets.

Projections at the top rear of the set by John Traub provide a sense of time, location and “place.” When photographs are projected of Black soldiers during WWII and of the segregated times that Ella confronted for much of her career, they provide an important link to larger issues and a bigger context for Fitzgerald’s life and times.

By the time Ella passed away in 1996, she had recorded over 200 albums, won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums. The scope and breadth of her song selections was huge. She recorded the Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks between 1956 and 1964. These eight albums included over 250 songs by the likes of Ellington, Porter, the Gershwins, Mercer, Arlen, Berlin, and Rodgers & Hart. Her arrangers included Nelson Riddle, Billy May and Billy Strayhorn. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts and received The Kennedy Center Honors.

Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song is not a show about a faded relic of the deep past performed as a star-turn. Nor is it just for those with a deep memory of Ella Fitzgerald. This is a production for anyone who loves astonishing music and wants to know about one of the true cornerstones and interpreters of 20th century American popular music. You will find yourself smitten watching both Payne as Payne and Payne in character as Ella Fitzgerald coming into her own on stage. In both instances, Payne becomes more comfortable and connected with the audience as the evening progresses.

In Ella we are absorbed by the performance of Freda Payne, who many will well remember from their own youthful days listening to “Band of Gold.” Performing in Ella, Payne has a charm and a warm patina that sparkles like the sequins on her costumes. We are fortunate to have Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song cast a light on a long winter night’s darkness.

Note: Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song was first staged at the Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 2004. Freda Payne performed as Ella Fitzgerald in that production. Crossroads Theatre Company was the recipient of the 1999 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre in the United States.

Photo Gallery

Freda Payne as Ella Fitzgerald Freda Payne as Ella Fitzgerald
Freda Payne as Ella Fitzgerald
Freda Payne as Ella Fitzgerald
Roz White as Georgiana and Wynonna Smith playing Young Ella Solo of Freda Payne as Ella Fitzgerald
Roz White as Georgiana and Wynonna Smith playing Young Ella
Solo of Freda Payne as Ella Fitzgerald
Roz White as Ella's cousin Georgiana, Wynonna Smith as Ella's younger sister Frances, and Freda Payne as Ella Freda Payne as Ella Fitzgerald and Tom Wiggin as her manager Norman Granz
Roz White as Ella’s cousin Georgiana, Wynonna Smith as Ella’s younger sister Frances, and Freda Payne as Ella
Freda Payne as Ella Fitzgerald and Tom Wiggin as her manager Norman Granz

Photos by Chris Banks

Cast

  • Ella: Freda Payne
  • Young Ella/Frances: Wynonna Smith
  • Georgiana: Roz White
  • Norman Granz: Tom Wiggin

Band

  • William Knowles: Piano
  • Greg Holloway: Drums
  • Grant Langford: Saxophone
  • Doug Pierce: Trumpet
  • Yuset Chisholm: Bass

Production & Designers

  • Conceived and Directed by Maurice Hines
  • Book by Lee Summers
  • Music Director/Additional Orchestra: William Knowles
  • Original Orchestration: Frank Owens
  • Set Design: Carl Gudenius
  • Costume Design: Scotty Sherman
  • Lighting Design: Alexander Keen
  • Sound Design: Robert Garner
  • Projection Design: John Traub
  • Stage Manager: William E. Cruttenden III
  • Technical Director: Jason Kznarich
  • Wing Master: Nat Lewis

Disclaimer: MetroStage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on ShowBizRadio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, Alexandria's American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with Arlington's American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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