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ATC's 'Ella' is a worthy show, despite its subject's uninteresting life

Last spring, a friend of mine was exasperated when he heard that Arizona Theatre Company would present Ella, a show in which an actress pretends to be Ella Fitzgerald in song and reminiscence. One of his objections echoed my longtime complaint that throwing a couple of singers and some musicians on stage for a survey of somebody's hits makes a nice cabaret show, but it ain't dramatic theater.

My friend's greater protest, though, was that it was foolish for anyone to try to be Ella. We've got decades' worth of her classic jazz vocal recordings, a fair amount of video footage and not-yet stale memories of what the singer was really like. What's the point of trotting out an Ella impersonator?

My indignant friend will probably continue to boycott ATC's Ella even if I tell him that the show is not just a cabaret toss-off tribute. Jeffrey Hatcher's script may be sketchy and rely on biographical truthiness more than facts, but it serves its purpose, and star Tina Fabrique is terrifically entertaining.

Here's the setup: It's 1966. Ella is on one of her marathon European tours, but she has managed to take a couple of days off to bury her beloved sister. The funeral's over, and Ella's producer-agent, Norman Granz (the man who developed Jazz at the Philharmonic and founded the jazz labels Verve and Pablo), insists that the show must go on. During rehearsal, he suggests that Ella allay the audience's concerns about her by indulging in a little reassuring "patter" between numbers. Ella hates the idea. "I don't talk to the audience," she says to the audience--us--once Granz leaves, whereupon she launches into an account of her life and career to that point, complete with musical illustrations.

That's the first half. After intermission, we see the show itself, and as Ella goes through her songlist and half-heartedly complies with her producer's demand for patter, it's clear to us what she's not saying. There's a little dramatic arc here and an emotional climax, which is more than we get from most shows like this, and everybody goes away happy, including, presumably, the ghost of Ella Fitzgerald.

So what's wrong with this show? The basic problem is Ella herself: Once she got past her early poverty and abusive upbringing, her life just wasn't all that interesting. Her career was all ups, no real downs (aside from a few questionable repertory choices in the late 1960s, and the inevitable decline during old age). She had no colorful vices or scandals. A couple of failed marriages, sure, but nothing spectacular there. A happy life doesn't make interesting theater.

Hard-core Ella fans will probably object to Hatcher's biographical telescoping. True, Ella's first big break came from bandleader Chick Webb, but Webb didn't just show up one day and discover young Ella singing to herself in an empty hall; he had to be talked into taking her on. Also, we get the feeling from the script that Ella's marriage to bassist Ray Brown lasted longer than it really did. And so on. But theater can give us only a pocket biography; if you want the full story, read a book.

What a book can't provide that Ella, the show, does, is a whole lot of music associated with Ella Fitzgerald. Fabrique doesn't just talk about how Ella made the transition from balladeer and novelty pop songstress to swing singer to bebop-style scat virtuoso; she demonstrates. And if Fabrique doesn't exactly look and sound like the real Ella, she's got the Ella Fitzgerald style down pat: the free and easy scatting, the fine sense of swing, the precise diction (which counts for a lot, even--especially--in scat).

Harold Dixon plays Granz as a brash but basically caring producer whose inherent manipulativeness is concealed by what seems like plain common sense. Too bad he doesn't have more stage time. More prominently featured is the backup quartet of pianist George Caldwell, trumpeter Brian "Lord" Sledge (yes, of that family), drummer Rodney Harper and bassist Clifton Kellem. Their acting skills aren't as advanced as their musicianship, but they're not required to open their mouths too often and so can concentrate on what they do best.

All the members of the behind-the-scenes team work well with limited materials, including director Rob Ruggiero, as well as scenic designer Michael Schweikardt (who works wonders just by dropping a few sheer drapes or beaded strands in the background) and costume designer Alejo Vietti, who nicely transforms Ella/Fabrique from a big, rather dowdy woman in the first act to a big, glamorous woman in the second.

Scoff as my friend will, Ella turns out to be a worthy show. The only thing really wrong with it, in my opinion, is that it's not about Sarah Vaughan.

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