Group: St. Louis Repetory Theatre
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through April 13
Tickets: From $14 to $63; contact 314-968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Story: Part musical and part drama, Ella is set on a stage in Nice, France in 1966, where Ella Fitzgerald, America’s "First Lady of Song," is performing a concert that is being taped for future airing, just three days after the death of her beloved sister, Frances. As Ella’s longtime manager, Norman Granz, coaxes her to add "patter" to her performance, she describes, both in rehearsal and in the actual concert, her surprisingly sad and lonely life.
Highlights: Some two dozen songs from legendary tunesmiths such as George and Ira Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin fill the bill in this nicely paced, two-hour paean to the ultimate female stylist of the American Songbook. As Fitzgerald, Tina Fabrique immerses herself fully into the larger-than-life persona but also shows us the all-too-fragile woman behind the legend. She displays a wonderful gift for jazz and scat singing in her own right, which greatly embellishes her impersonation of the renowned star.
Complementing Fabrique’s performance is an impressive set designed by Michael Schweikardt that conveys the sense and feel of a concert stage, with the single word ‘Ella’ looming over the proceedings in festive lights, along with three billowing arches that frame the proceedings. Lighting for the production, designed by John Lasiter, is absolutely spectacular, bathing scenes in various hues of lavender, turquoise, blue, violet and a rapturous evening sky festooned with stars. Charles Lapointe contributes the era wig for Ella and Alejo Vietti offers signature threads of the period.
Other Info: There’s fine supporting work by the musicians who double as members of the combo as well as various men in Ella’s life. George Caldwell serves ably as conductor and pianist, Thad Wilson is the trumpeter, Rodney Harper is the drummer and Clifton Kellem ably performs on bass. Harold Dixon nicely completes the ensemble as Ella’s manager, Norman Granz.
Crowd-pleasers include You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini), Porter’s sultry Night and Day, the jaunty Arlen/Mercer tune That Old Black Magic, Berlin’s bouncy Blue Skies, Berlin’s romantic ballad, Cheek to Cheek and a humorous take on the Gershwin’s Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, with Fabrique doing a duet with Louis Armstrong impersonator Wilson.
Entertaining but also poignant, Ella is in the house at The Rep through April 13 and a must-see for any of her fans.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.