The songs come first and the script a very distant second in Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song. The musical revue, directed by song-and-dance showman Maurice Hines, stars R&B singer Freda Payne, of “Band of Gold” fame, as the iconic jazz singer. Backed by an able five-piece jazz band, Payne warbles her way through the American songbook. She’s a pleasing enough impersonator, and if only MetroStage were presenting her in a cabaret act instead of a musical, audiences would have a reason to mosey on out to Alexandria.
But sadly, First Lady of Song is yet another biographical show that strings together musical numbers with a script thinner than the mesh screens separating the actors from the band. After the opening doo-wop of “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” the screens are pulled back; the musicians each have a handful of lines throughout the show. They do their best.
Payne and the three other nonmusician actors grin and bear it through the clichéd lines and awkward transitions they’ve been dealt. (Lee Summers, a Dreamgirls actor who has dabbled in playwriting, provided the book.) Most of the musical interpretations are sincerely cheery, while the dialogue mines Fitzgerald’s life for melodrama. The chronology jumps around, but early in the show, Wynonna Smith plays “Young Ella,” who is singing on the streets for a living until she wins a few contests and starts touring with Chick Webb (as played by drummer Greg Halloway, who stays onstage after his character dies). Later Smith doubles as Ella’s always pregnant, always broke sister Frances. While likely intended to remind the audience of Ella’s hardscrabble upbringing, the pregnant beggar scenarios come off like a running gag, and in the show’s most unfortunate scene, Smith comes onstage and places a beat-up plastic doll in Payne’s arms. Frances has one too many mouths to feed and wants to pawn off her latest kid on her wealthy, childless sister. Payne calls her (offstage) husband, discovers he’s at a hotel with another woman, and is left onstage cradling the doll while she sings “I’ve Found a New Baby.” (At the performance I attended, the audience giggled through Payne’s attempt at an emotional rendering.)
When Hines starred in his own autobiographical song-and-dance show late last year, Arena’s Stage’s bigger budget amped up the razzle-dazzle factor. He also simply reminisced, rather than trying to force a narrative arc. Arena took a similar tack five years ago when it mounted an Ella show of its own starring Tina Fabrique. The first-person confessional style seems to work better than rushing secondary characters on and off stage between standards.
At MetroStage, the between-song dialogue scenes are presented in faux dressing rooms set up at stage right and left. Simple projections convey the name (and sometimes city) of the venue. Roz White plays Georgianna, Fitzgerald’s long-suffering cousin who accompanies her on the road. Occasionally they sing together, and it becomes obvious that White has the deep, well-supported lower voice that Ella had and Payne lacks.
Payne captivates the crowd best when she’s hanging in the middle ranges, and she mimics Fitzgerald’s coloratura-like leaps well, even if her high notes are a touch shaky. Now in her 70s, she can shuffle but not really dance. She’s gracious, classy, and seems a bit tired, which is disconcerting given that she’s got six weeks left in her run. Other Hines-generated shows have toured beyond D.C. Here’s hoping he decides to give poor Payne a rest, and retires this torch-singer jukebox musical come March.