A diva despite her mild temperament, Ella Fitzgerald proudly wore the title of “first lady of song.” Yet she seemed comfortable in the spotlight only when she could lose herself in music. Give her a microphone and she could fill a room with clarion sunshine, but her stage presence tended to subside with the orchestra.
In “Ella,” a musical biography that morphs into a concert in the second act, Tina Fabrique re-creates the peculiar mix of astonishing giftedness and personal diffidence that characterized this vocal legend. Conceived by Rob Ruggiero, the production’s director, and Dyke Garrison, the show opened Saturday at the Laguna Playhouse, and it’s easy to see why the work has become popular on the regional theater circuit.
An entertaining stroll through the American songbook, “Ella” doesn’t let its tame script by Jeffrey Hatcher get any bulkier than a sketch. The setup is a 1966 concert in Nice, France, in which Ella is asked by her indispensable manager, Norman Granz (Harold Dixon), the man who founded Verve Records, to offer a little more patter than usual to reassure her fans that despite her grief from recent losses, “Miss Ella” is ready to let it rip.
But this theatrical liability of shyness had an upside. With her pristine tone and unfussy delivery, she managed to turn blushing self-effacement into a sterling aesthetic.
With a four-piece band onstage to back her up, Fabrique leads us on a retrospective (and admittedly perfunctory) tour of Fitzgerald’s career, starting with her hardscrabble beginnings, which took a dramatic turn when she won first prize at the Apollo Theater’s amateur night. From there, it’s a series of telegraphic updates on the bumpy road to fame, most of them having to do with unhappy romantic and familial relationships and the challenge of being a shrinking violet, a discriminated-against black woman and an international recording star.
Hatcher’s book functions as a kind of chronological Christmas tree on which to hang musical baubles. It would be difficult to thread “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” “That Old Black Magic” and “Blue Skies” into a complex narrative, and “Ella” doesn’t bother to try. The singer herself is the common denominator. But the show, which unfolds on Michael Schweikardt’s straightforward concert hall set, doesn’t quite do enough with the paradox of her artistry -- her ability to partition private pain while precisely serving the notes and lyrics as written.
Fitzgerald is often contrasted with Holiday, but the more useful comparison may be with Sarah Vaughan, a singer with just as Olympian a voice but whose interpretive swoops and bluesy finishes invited audiences into her tempestuous inner seas. Hatcher understands the racial element to this discussion. He has Ella confide to us about her predicament: “People were starting to say my voice was too clean, my diction was too clear. I wasn’t ‘authentic.’ Which was code for ‘She’s too white.’ ” But the piece doesn’t probe beyond the surface here. The issue is raised merely as a stepping stone to Ella’s movement into scat.
And boy, can Fabrique scat with style. Carmen McRae once remarked that Betty Carter was the last true jazz singer. Both of those improvisatory wonders are now gone, but in Fabrique’s homage to one of the greatest, she momentarily revives the art of vocal bebop in arrangements by Danny Holgate that are first-rate.
One question lingers: Can anyone really sound like Fitzgerald? Of course not. Fabrique’s voice is lower and her emotions seep more readily in her colorations. She doesn’t know how to achieve personality through shimmering impersonality. Yet she’s close enough in manner to remind us of the original while offering captivating renditions of classics that never grow old.
As far as dramatic characters go, Ella can seem rather bland in her relentless niceness. What made her special was her art, not her life. This tribute to her might have been better off erring even more on the side of concert than bio-drama, but fortunately, the show ultimately heeds that undying Duke Ellington-Irving Mills wisdom, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”
Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 22.
Price: $35 to $70
Contact: (949) 497-2787
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes