A look into the life of Ella
Tina Fabrique brought down the house as the title character in Ella: The Musical!, the show currently playing at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Fabrique’s soaring vocal range and exquisite rendering of jazz songs — made standards by the late Ella Fitzgerald — left one wondering why the show wasn’t titled Tina: The Musical!.
A production created by a native Pittsburgh Public Theater director, Rob Ruggiero, and Dyke Garrison, Ella is essentially a one-woman show, taking place during the rehearsal of a concert on the French Riviera late in the singer’s career. On a stage empty save for a standing microphone, Fabrique spoke to the audience like they were all old friends, letting them in on the memories and emotions of the modest singer. Known as the “good girl” in the music business, the darker notes of Fitzgerald’s life are highlighted in this production, which weaves the singer’s broken relationship with her son and rocky marriage with a fellow musician into the silky smooth renditions of songs like “The Man I Love,” “Night and Day,” and “Blue Skies.”
“Blue Skies” is reprised on several occasions in the musical, and as the context evolves, Fabrique transforms the lyrics into a bluesy lullaby, and then a joyful ditty with a vibrant scat. Fabrique carried the two-hour production effortlessly. It was only when she discreetly turned her back to the audience to gulp down water during instrumental breaks that the audience could realize that, in actuality, this was hard work. A Broadway veteran, Fabrique joins the cast of Ella after performing in Ragtime, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Harlem Song, among others. George Caldwell, another Broadway veteran (The Full Monty) is both musical director and onstage pianist and conductor.
The ensemble also includes Rodney Harper on drums, Ron Haynes on trumpet, and Harold Dixon, who plays Ella’s manager Norman Granz. Each musician doubles as a man in Ella’s life — bathed in the spotlight, he leans into his microphone and delivers a line to melt or break Ella’s heart — before returning to his instrument. This playful dynamic between song and story keeps the plot alive, even when Ella’s life takes a turn for the worse and the audience is left wondering if she will be able to pick herself up and keep going. When she collapses on stage during her concert performance in France, weeping while her elegant sequined dress sparkles in the stage light, it is hard to untangle her personal sadness from her role as a stage performer, the very problem with which Fitzgerald struggled her entire career: where her music stops and her life begins. She is never able to completely love anything more than her career.
It is this ambition and drive coupled with loneliness and heartache that make Ella a sympathetic character, but an exasperating one at that. When she leaves her son at home with a nanny while she and her husband leave to pursue their independent musical projects, the audience is torn between wanting Ella’s career to flourish and for her son to be well-cared for. Viewers would want to like the singer as much as they like her voice, but the production’s revelation of Ella’s true colors leaves her polished legacy a bit tarnished.