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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Ella’ lives and swings again

Fans of musical legends such as Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash are well acquainted with the “back stories” of their favorite singers thanks to a spate of movie and television biographies, but little is known outside of her public performances about the vocalist dubbed the “first lady of song.”

Until now, that is. The Laguna Playhouse is bringing Ella Fitzgerald center stage in a marvelous musical and dramatic tribute titled, simply, “Ella,” which fills in the biographical blanks while celebrating her immense vocal talents.

You probably didn’t know, for instance, that Ella’s son Ray Jr., with husband bassist Ray Brown, actually was the eighth child of her younger sister, who possessed all of the fertility in the family. Tidbits like this are sprinkled in between songs in this supremely entertaining show conceived by Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison and directed by Ruggiero.

Even without the story line, however, “Ella” offers plenty of celebration thanks to the remarkable Tina Fabrique in the title role. Fabrique “becomes” Ella Fitzgerald in short order, singing and scatting her way through nearly two dozen of her most noteworthy numbers and earning, on opening night, two standing ovations.

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She has plenty of support in the form of a terrific four-piece combo highlighted by the phenomenal trumpeter Thad Wilson, who not only blows up a storm but does a brief stint as Louis Armstrong, or rather an impersonation of the great Satchmo. Comprising the other three musicians are pianist/conductor George Caldwell, bassist Clifton Kellem and dynamic drummer Rodney Harper. They, along with Harold Dixon as Ella’s longtime manager Norman Granz, enrich the production immeasurably.

Fabrique opens the program — set during a 1966 concert date in Nice, France — with a pleasing rendition of “How High the Moon,” which Dixon, as Granz, urges her to spice up with a little “scatting.” The result of this overhaul is joyously displayed later in the show.

As she prepares for the concert, Fabrique gets up close and personal with her audience, relating her traumatic childhood and initial lack of success as a singer (“they said I was too fat and ugly”) and recalling her days of fending off the advances of her stepfather. Professional advancements are balanced against personal disappointments in this account of an entertainer who only seemed comfortable with a microphone and an audience.

In this latter vein, there was no one like her. Fabrique offers some of Ella’s best-known songs, such as “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Mr. Paganini,” “Night and Day,” “Lullaby of Birdland,” “Lady Be Good” and her signature number, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she co-wrote, along with a spectacular rendition of the first act closer, “That Old Black Magic.” Absent from her repertoire, unfortunately, is the improvised version of “Mack the Knife” from a notable Berlin concert.

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Scenic designer Michael Schweikardt’s simple but elegant setting resembles an indoor version of the Hollywood Bowl. It’s the ideal showcase for a celebratory show.

If you’re a fan not only of Ella Fitzgerald but jazz music in general, the Laguna show is two hours of sheer delight. Tina Fabrique may not carry the physical weight of the great Ella, but she exudes the vocal power and showmanship of this legendary artist.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: “Ella”

WHERE: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Friday, at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays until March 22 (special performances at 2 p.m. March 5, at 7 p.m. March 15)

COST: $30 to $70

CALL: (494) 497-2787

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TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Coastline Pilot.


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