CLEVELAND Ella Fitzgerald would be proud to hear Broadway actress Tina Fabrique playing her at the Cleveland Play House. Fans of the singer will be proud as well.
That warm, pure voice that was Fitzgerald's trademark will continue to echo throughout The Play House's Bolton Theatre through April 22 in the musical biography "Ella."
The show includes songs such as "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "Our Love is Here to Stay" as well as "Night and Day," and Fitzgerald's-own "A-tisket, A-tasket."
The First Lady of Song not only sings to the audience, but treats us as confidants. The usually-reserved Ella reveals to us her difficult past, and a secret she's been keeping from her son one which she later tells him, as though he were sitting among us.
To playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's credit, "Ella" is no aimless night of conversation and song. There's conflict and a narrative framework through which Fitzgerald relates her story: It is 1966, and the singer has just lost her sister, with whom she was nearly inseparable. Fitzgerald is practicing for a sold out concert in France, but she's obviously in no mood for music, and in need of talking with someone. Her producer suggests her audience, and Fitzgerald heeds his advice.
In flashbacks, we hear about Fitzgerald's abusive stepfather, how she danced on street corners to attract brothel customers and how she got discovered in the world-famous Apollo Theatre. Fitzgerald talks lovingly about her accomplishments in the public eye, but shows her humanity when she says all she wants is to live a normal life.
While "Ella" is a nod to Fitzgerald's past, it's also about the need to let go of the past especially one as difficult as Fitzgerald's. Costume designer Alejo Vietti captures that theme nicely, with a black outfit of mourning for Fitzgerald in the show's beginning, and a cheery blue outfit later on.
Fitzgerald's parents divorced when she was a baby and her mother died in a car accident when Ella was 15. In the play, she shows remarkable resilience by going on with her performance in France.
But, Ella cannot forget the past until she tells her son the circumstances surrounding his. When the play moves more than full-circle, to the concert in France, Ella does so. If you felt for Daddy Warbucks when he told Annie something had been missing in his life, or if you've been missing that something yourself, what Fitzgerald tells her son at the concert will leave you misty eyed.
And the deliberate, loving manner in which Fabrique says it will leave you all the more moved.
With her voice cracking, she slowly makes her way down the stage as though she were really dreading this moment. In a soft, tender voice, she addresses her son as though speaking to someone really sitting in the audience.
As shaken as Fitzgerald seems at that moment, Fabrique makes Fitzgerald appear serene while singing. With her eyes closed, and her gentle voice floating into the audience, she resembles someone relaxing in the shower while effortlessly letting her singing voice flow.
As we listen to the sweet strains of Fabrique's voice, we feel like we're floating on a cloud.
Yes, Fabrique has done the First Lady of Song and her myriad fans proud.
IF YOU GO...
WHAT: "Ella," a musical biography about Ella Fitzgerald
WHEN: Through April 22. Performances 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 4 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., Cleveland