If you love Ella Fitzgerald—heck, even if you were born last week and are thus only vaguely familiar with Ella Fitzgerald (in fact, especially if you’re only vaguely familiar with her)–you must see this Ella: The First Lady of Song! The astonishing vituosa Freda Payne brings the First Lady of Song to life with an elegance, a grace, a resonant beauty, and transcendent voice that captivates as Ella Fitzgerald captivated. Miss Payne is clearly one of the greatest jazz singers of our time, and a chance to hear her live in such a warm, intimate setting is not to be missed.
Conceived and directed by the great Maurice Hines, with compelling book by Lee Summers and masterful music direction by William Knowles, MetroStage’s production of Ella: First Lady of Song soars and simmers and shines and soothes us, rendering us all the more humbly grateful to have walked the earth at the same time as this magnificent singer.
Miss Payne imbues her Ella such a lush fullness of voice and depth of spirit that we are instantly her devoted fans, rising and falling with every gloriously sung song, every gloriously captured riff and rumble, scat and sizzle. Indeed, as MetroStage Founder and Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin announced after the curtain, Maurice Hines knew that there was only one singer who could fulfill this role, and that was Miss Freda Payne.
Miss Payne’s Ella Fitzgerald is supported by a terrific company of a select few other essential characters—including the young Ella and her younger sister Frances, both played by the vibrant and lovely-voiced Wynonna Smith; as well as Miss Fitzgerald’s devoted cousin and “company-manager-of-one” Georgiana, played by the resonant, full-voiced and seamlessly funny Roz White; and finally the trail-blazing if controversial jazz promoter Norman Granz, played with spot-on slick salesmanship and drive by Tom Wiggen. The ensemble effortlessly moves from era to era, filling in the narrative of Miss Fitzgerald’s dramatic and often painful life, evoking throughout the enduring tenderness and unconditional love that flowed between Miss Fitzgerald and her extended family.
In a fine bit of historical compression, the production has Granz repeatedly approach unseen white club owners, pitching his concept for jazz concerts on Sunday with the finest musicians, but with the proviso that the clubs drop their whites-only audience policy. Again and again, he is rebuked until, changing the tenor of his pitch from query to insistence, the Trouville nightclub in Los Angeles agrees and civil rights history is made. Wiggins conveys the undaunted energy of Granz with an endearing, “crazy-like-a-fox” kind of impresario countenance.
As Ella’s devoted, at times long-suffering cousin and offstage personal manager Georgiana, Miss White, clearly a gifted actress, brings a delightfully robust and reality-based gravitas to the role. And her wonderful dead-pan comic timing provides much of the levity of the evening. A powerful singer herself, Miss White joins Miss Payne, and at times Miss Smith, in beautiful harmonies that convey the family’s deep ties to each other. Wynonna Smith, as the young Ella and later as sister Frances, provides a joyous youthful energy and delightful comic sensibility to the roles. Her clear, melodious voice and exuberant dancing embody the sweetness and charm of young Ella, making us all the more thrilled by her break-through opportunities in show business. And her engaging intermittent appearances as Frances anchor the evening in the deeply personal foundation of Ella Fitzgerald’s life.
…all jazz lovers across the region should run to catch.
And supporting them all throughout is the sensational 5-piece jazz band, guided by consummate musical direction and additional orchestrations by William Knowles, and original orchestrations by Frank Owens. The impeccable and cooly suave musicians, including Knowles on piano (who also conducts), Greg Holloway on drums, Grant Langford on saxophone, Doug Pierce on trumpet, and Yusef Chisholm on bass—not only recreate the big band and be-bop sounds of Miss Ella’s career trajectory, but engage with Miss Payne throughout as actors portraying the individual musicians. Beginning with the big band leader Chick Webb who gave a young Ella her big break back in the 1930s–played with understated ease by masterful drummer Greg Holloway—the band members frequently banter and joke with Miss Payne’s Ella, bringing alive the hip conviviality and collaboration that is jazz. Special applause to the quintessential bass player (and, to legions of DCPS families, beloved and award-winning music teacher) Yusef Chisholm, who portrays Ella Fitzgerald’s second husband and life-long friend, Ray Brown, with sexy, smoky charm and humor.
Filled with swinging big band songs of the 30s and 40s, and segueing in the be-bop era pioneered by Charlie “Bird” Parker, the production includes almost 30 songs, from such legendary artists as Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rogers, and others. Too numerous to name, a few audience favorites included “Yessir, That’s My Baby,” “A Tisket, A Tasket,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and the real show stopper “Mack the Knife” by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, which Ella Fitzgerald famously was the first female artist to sing.
The silky smooth production was aided throughout by the crisp production values. The elegant costumes by Scotty Sherman—interspersed throughout the evening—perfectly captured the class and style of the First Lady of Song, and the changing wardrobes of young Ella (with effective wigs by wigmaster Nat Lewis), Georgiana, and Frances evoked the eras quite well. Granz’s dapper brown 3-piece suit was a marvel of period costuming as well.
Set designer Carl Gudenius’ sleek minimal set and lighting designer Alexander Keen’s crisply delineated lighting, with its pristine spotlights and intimate illuminations, provided a keen differentiation between on and offstage, and gave the audience a private glimpse into Miss Fitzgerald’s inner circle. Sound designer Robert Garner’s ambient applause and sound design and production designer John Traub’s captions and images dramatically moved the narrative forward.
The lucky audience opening night, standing as it was in prolonged ovation, was graced not only by the gracious presence of the immeasurably talented director Maurice Hines and Associate Director Mel Johnson, Jr., but also by the inestimable comedian and veteran activist Dick Gregory. An extraordinary end to an extraordinary production, one that indeed graces and elevates the Washington, DC, theatre community, and to which all jazz lovers across the region should run to catch.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.
Playing through March 16, 2014 at MetroStage, 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, VA22314
Tickets/Information: 703-548-9044 or click here.