The cheap-to-produce musical cash cow—er, the one-woman diva-of-song homage, understandably popular if regrettably middlebrow—is becoming something of a tradition at Arena Stage (the last installment in the series being 2006’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill), and why should a little thing like an institutional re-launch get in the way of precedent? The ambitious campus-expansion scheme Arena has been saving up for is getting ready to break ground, and though you might think the area’s leading resident theater company, on the occasion of its temporary relocation, might take the chance to reassure its audiences that it’s still focused on those big, passionate plays its mission statement insists on talking about, Arena has decided to christen its provisional Crystal City home with Ella, an affectionate, sympathetic bio-musical about the eternal Ella Fitzgerald.
Who turns out, God bless her, to be a little dull.
Not the musician, mind you—if you’re a Fitzgerald fan, or even merely musically inclined, the sumptuous noise of this evening alone might be worth the ticket—but the reserved, needy, slightly prim lady behind the First Lady of Song. “I can sing a saloon song,” she tells the audience in no uncertain terms at one point, “but I am not of the saloon.” And to underscore the point: “I’m the only woman I know of in this business who doesn’t have a past.”
She did have one, actually—it involved manipulative men, a distanced relationship with her adopted son, a spell of homelessness, a part-time job charming customers on the sidewalk at a “sportin’ house”—but she never let it find its way into her music. Ella tries to force the issue with a desultory plot involving a funeral and a revelation, a pushy manager who wants Fitzgerald to personalize her act with a little more patter and the (implausibly) inevitable breakdown that comes when she does.
Now, Jeffrey Hatcher’s a respectable playwright, but this thinly written bit of business feels decidedly phoned-in. Even the jokes are limp: Early in the evening, the classiest of American-songbook singers is heard to tell her colleagues that they’ll have to excuse her, because she’s not feeling especially scatological today. (Sigh.)
Tina Fabrique’s line readings don’t help: Director Rob Ruggiero, who co-conceived the show with Dyke Garrison, has her narrating various unfortunate vignettes from Fitzgerald’s life with a wistful sweetness that curdles too often into Sunday-school saccharine. It makes the character sound like she can’t figure out how all these sad things happened to her, when Fitzgerald’s consciousness of her own professional selfishness, and of its consequences, is in fact pretty central to the sob story Hatcher’s trying to sell.
At least the music’s more or less indestructible. Fabrique, freshly sprung from Arena’s godawful The Women of Brewster Place, sings the bejesus out of a toothsome list of inevitables, from “A Tisket, a Tasket” and “Night and Day” to “That Old Black Magic” and “Blue Skies.” And having starred in something approaching a dozen productions of Ella, she’s got the tunes pretty much in her bones.
Fabrique’s own voice may be a little rawer, a little darker than Miss Fitz’s ever was, but when she’s consciously working the imitation, her Fitzgeraldisms can be uncannily on-target: The chewy vowels, the slightly bent pitches, the sleepy down-tempo purr, the straight-tone head voice skating clean and serene at the edge of the vocal break.
And she’s got the cool, easy affect down pat: Nobody’s ever been as unflappable as Ella Fitzgerald midway through a Johnny Mercer tune, and that vocal authority is central to Fabrique’s portrayal. Suffice it to say that if everything about Ella could learn to swing like the songs do, the show might actually live up to its name.