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Friday, August 03, 2012

“Ella”: The Long and Short of It

The Kindest Cut of All Dept.: Although I’m pretty good about keeping to an editorial word count, here’s an example of a piece I “wrote long,” then trimmed to length. Compare it to the published version and you’ll see that the cuts got rid of some (but not all) of my delightful pedantry. Fear not: I keep plenty in reserve.


Tina Fabrique as Ella Fitzgerald
LISTEN TO COLE PORTER’S “Night and Day.” The refrain’s hypnotic pulse draws you into its spell with on-the-beat keywords and descending melodic phrases with descending chromatic accompaniment. It has an odd construction for a pop song, with three 16-bar sections instead of four sections of eight measures apiece. As the third section begins, there’s a leap up of an unexpected minor third, an odd tonal shift to support the oddball phrase “under the hide of me.” And that sets us up the sudden bounce of “oh, such a hungry yearning,” an excitement that soon subsides into that hypnotic descent before the minor-key clouds that colored the piece clear for a strong major-key finish.

Sing the sheet music as its written and the song’s magic works. But Ella Fitzgerald didn’t sing it that way. She loosened the notes from the pulse and colored them with the jazz equivalent of Baroque ornamentation, in a style as distinctive as a fingerprint. Tina Fabrique doesn’t sing it that way, nor does she sing it totally Ella’s way. She pays astonishing tribute to Ella in the current Capital Rep show, but her own gifts, colored by a more contemporary sensibility, shine through in triumph.

The show presents her with a virtuoso four-piece band and walk-on support by Harold Dixon as Ella’s most effective impresario, Norman Granz. It takes place during a concert in Nice in 1966, when the singer is wracked with grief over the death of a loved one. Act One is a career retrospective; Act Two the emotionally charged concert itself.

As a biography, liberties galore are taken. “You’re the only woman I know in this business who doesn’t have a past,” Granz tells Fitzgerald, encouraging her to open herself to the audience, and this also was playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s challenge: find some conflict in the singer’s life with which to sculpt the emotional spine of the play.

Hatcher is no stranger to putting biography on the stage. He adapted Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie” and his comedy “Ten Chimneys,” putting Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne back on the stage, gets its Off-Broadway bow in September.

But where Fitzgerald is concerned, there isn’t much to go on, and what we’re presented grows unconvincing and flirts with mawkishness. By the middle of the second act, when the singer is depicted publicly insulting her manager and then breaking down onstage, the thread of credibility has stretched to a breaking point.

How much does this matter?

If Fabrique and the ensemble performed the nearly two dozen classic numbers without any plot, it would be an incredible jazz concert. Pianist George Caldwell, trumpeter Ron Haynes, bassist Derick Polk and drummer Rodney Harper comprise as talented and joyful a team as you could want.

What the show gets from its dramatic underpinning is a fresh set of song contexts. Although easily and appropriately appreciable as little gems on their own, some of the numbers originated in Broadway shows, some in movies. “Ella” allows them once again to give an emotional kick to a dramatic setting.

“Night and Day,” for instance, was introduced by Fred Astaire in the 1932 musical “The Gay Divorce,” and furthered his complicated wooing of Clare Luce. Just as in the original, this becomes the penultimate Act One number, and just as poignantly underpins a scene of longing, albeit of a different kind. 

“How High the Moon” initially offered a sobering moment in the 1940 musical “Two for the Show.” It became one of Ella’s signature songs, and opens this show in one of the rare versions that doesn’t include a quote from Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology.”

A slew of Gershwin songs weaves throughout the evening. Although written for Fred
Astaire, “They Can't Take That Away from Me” and “’S Wonderful,” were equally effective in Ella’s version, the threatening preciousness of brother Ira’s lyrics swept aside by the conviction of performances that are just as convincing a la Fabrique.

And she turns “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” originally an Astaire-Rogers duet, into a duet with Louis Armstrong, brilliantly captured in spirit and solos by trumpeter Haynes, who also joins our Ella in another Astaire-film number, Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek.”

By the time “The Man I Love” comes in, we’re deep into the second act, pairing the song’s deceptively simple complexity with what will be an emotional turn-around in the show. The song helps achieve this with its textbook combination of direct, simple lyrics and a melody crafted with careful patterns of tension and release.

“The melodic fragment which constitutes the principal idea is just that – a fragment,” writes Alec Wilder in his exhaustive study American Popular Song. “It is an A-A1-B-A1 song, containing a release [bridge] which, fortunately is truly a release from the reiteration of this fragment and, in its fourth-measure cadence, ingenious.”

That AABA construction is the classic American Standard song pattern. Each strain comprises eight bars and the third of them (bridge, release, burthen – term it as you will) is a contrast in both words and music, offering an insight that brings the singer to a place of resolution – however tentative – in the final eight measures.

Ella’s recorded Songbooks series paid tribute to the work of the best of the classic songwriters, proving one of the most masterful of interpreters of this powerful form. Incredibly, it’s not how she first gained fame.

In “Ella,” we accompany her to the Apollo Theater and contest she won, leading (with dramatic liberty) to her debut with Chick Webb’s band, with which her novelty song “A-Tisket,
A-Tasket” became a 1938 hit. We’re impishly delayed the pleasure of it in the show, which is a nice touch.

It’s not enough that the “Ella” instrumental quartet plays the hell out of Danny Holgate’s arrangements. They’re also called upon to portray a number of people in Fitzgerald’s life. Not surprisingly, drummer Harper becomes Chick Webb and bassist Polk plays the legendary Ray Brown, who was married to Ella for a few years. A number of other cameos are tossed around, each of them effective.

The sum: “Ella” is a moving, exciting evening of music and theater. Fabrique is a joy. The story gets out of its own way.

A friend of Cole Porter reportedly was astonished to learn that the songwriter actually enjoyed the hyper-sanitized 1946 film version of his life, in which he was improbably portrayed by Cary Grant. “How could he have enjoyed such a travesty?” this friend asked another, who replied, “Did you ask him how many of his songs were used?”

That’s the approach to take to enjoying “Ella.”

Book by Jeffrey Hatcher
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Capital Repertory Co., July 24

– A shorter version of this piece appeared in the Aug. 2, 2012 Metroland Magazine.

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