Stay in the Loop
BSR publishes on a weekly schedule, with an email newsletter every Wednesday and Thursday morning. There’s no paywall, and subscribing is always free.
It’s not yet “Too Darn Hot” outside, but the temperature is just right at Delaware Theatre Company’s season closer, Ella: First Lady of Song. Now onstage at the Riverfront Wilmington theatre, Maurice Hines’s tribute to legendary songstress Ella Fitzgerald offers an evening of memorable songs and standards that keep the musical thermostat perfectly calibrated.
Hines, something of a legend himself, and Lee Summers (who wrote the book) crafted a satisfying, tune-filled trip to and through Fitzgerald’s life and music. As conceived and directed by Hines, the show opens with Ella’s legendary 1966 appearance (recorded live with the Duke Ellington Orchestra) on France’s Cote d’Azur. It then travels back to explore the singer’s troubled childhood and marriages while also tracking her rise as the 20th century’s most successful songstress.
A star turn
In a remarkable performance, stage and recording star (“Band of Gold”) Freda Payne artfully evokes Ella’s huge range of vocal stylings. From early Tin Pan Alley music through scat and bebop she moves all the way to the heartfelt (and beautifully sung) standards of Porter, Gershwin, and others from the Great American Songbook.
Payne is never offstage. In two acts over two hours, she sings in all the evening’s 25 stylistically varied numbers — 17 of them solo — with nary a glitch nor a trace of fatigue. It’s a masterful musical feat, a testament not only to her vocal prowess but to the focus and determination that are her career hallmarks. Also an affecting actress, she skillfully and touchingly navigates Ella’s challenges alongside her triumphs.
The show’s star is surrounded and buoyed by a powerful, versatile cast. Wynonna Smith gives a snappy performance as Young Ella and also plays her younger sister, Frances, with great emotion.
Two strong-willed (often warring) people dominated and managed Ella’s career: Harriett D. Foy impresses as Fitzgerald’s strong-willed, no-nonsense, watchful cousin Georgiana. Jake Blouch is the snazzy embodiment of famed midcentury jazz impresario Norman Granz, who molded Ella’s later musical explorations. In the show’s few shared musical numbers, it’s clear these three actors also possess impressive musical chops.
Glamour by design
Charming music director William Foster McDaniel fronts a five-piece combo seated at club-style bandstands (the band is composed of Marcell Bellinger, Kenneth Crutchfield, Vernon James Jr., Steven Palmore, and Brent White). From the grand piano, McDaniel guides this musically savvy group to evoke the changing styles of stage shows and club acts ranging from the early ‘20s through the ‘60s. For an additional treat, stay for the hot post-show play-out music, featuring Crutchfield’s killer drum solo.
The story unfolds on Colin McIlvaine’s set, where fragments of period marquees embellished with chasing lights stylishly recreate the atmosphere of clubs and theatres. Elegant projections designed by Nicholas Hussong establish the historical sweep of Ella’s career, and after seeing their effectiveness in the second act, the first act seems visually sparse by comparison. Andrew F. Griffin’s lighting evokes the right flavor of each place and period: some bright and bouncy, others smoky and clubby.
Balancing amplified orchestra and vocalists is always a challenge, especially at DTC, which is designed for stage voices. John Stovicek’s sound design is clean and clear, but in some high-energy musical arrangements, its brightness favors the band and overpowers even a vocalist as sonically astute as Payne.
Emilio Sosa’s assured costume designs — both his streetwear and Ella’s performance gowns — span every changing era. The diva is adorned with sumptuous dresses — chiffon, spangles, rhinestones — evoking Fitzgerald’s onstage glamour. And there must be a shoutout to quick costume changes, plus wigs and makeup (by J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova) that also change with the times.
Art imitates life
The show’s book covers a lot of biographical and musical ground, and its exposition is occasionally too obviously foregrounded. But Summers smoothly conveys the challenges and range of the great singer’s career.
Hines brings authenticity to all his projects, and this is no exception; he and his brother Gregory once worked with Ella. Some lovely staging speaks to Hines’s work as dancer and choreographer — starting one song with Young Ella and having Payne glide in to finish it, or having Blouch simply move the microphone to guide Payne around the stage as songs slide into a different period.
According to Frank Sinatra, “There’s Ella, and then there’s the rest of us.” Early in the show, Ella asks the band to “Sing me a swing song and let me dance.” Hines has done just that. Payne sings and swings through Ella’s eras, and the director allows the music to lead us all in this lively biographical dance.
What, When, Where
Ella: First Lady of Song. Conceived and directed by Maurice Hines, book by Lee Summers. Through May 13, 2018, at the Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington, Delaware. (302) 594-1100 or delawaretheatre.org.
Sign up for our newsletter
All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.