BWW Reviews: ELLA: FIRST LADY OF SONG at MetroStage Falls Flat

By: Jan. 29, 2014
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While not everyone is a jazz or vocal standards fan, everyone has that one artist they like to come home to, who, for them, is comforting. It's the music you can turn on after a long day, or even at the start of it. For me, one of those artists has always been Ella Fitzgerald.

Currently at MetroStage in Alexandria, the "First Lady of Song" is the subject of an original musical, directed by legendary performer Maurice Hines. As much as I wanted to love this production, several aspects of it quickly fell flat.

The show is formatted as a kind of PBS retrospective. It begins in 1966 at the Cote d'Azur, with Ella giving yet another brilliant command performance, and recalling stories from her life as she takes a break in her dressing room. These flashbacks incorporate her manager, Norman Granz (Tom Wiggin), her cousin and longtime assistant Georgiana (Roz White), and her sister Frances (Wynonna Smith, who also plays a younger Ella).

Lee Summers' book successfully outlines the story of Ella's rise to fame, incorporating her heartbreak and family struggles, but there is no real depth to it. The pivotal moment of the first act breezes through the retelling, and the whole thing relies on cliché. I was confused by the break of the two acts as well. The second act was barely twenty minutes long, and picked up with the same song as the end of the first. While it was a great song, it did nothing for the story.

Freda Payne, known for her 70's hit "Band of Gold", does have a remarkable ability to channel Ella Fitzgerald's voice. Scatting is not easy, and Payne manages to do it just as Ella did in her numerous recordings. One highlight came during a montage demonstrating her recordings - Ms. Payne's version of "Come Rain or Come Shine" was lovely.

That being said, to call her the "leading actress" of the show would be misleading. Payne lets her performance be carried simply on her singing ability, making her scenes painful. On several occasions, Payne looked out into the audience rather than at her fellow cast members, and was so horribly stiff that she was anything but believable. What was meant to be a romantic, intimate scene felt awkward, and dramatic monologues were forgettable. I left the show wondering if the book had been cut down on purpose, in order to speed ahead to the next song and let the audience recover from or forget what they'd just seen.

The show's supporting cast proved far more viewable. Tom Wiggin gives a truly genuine performance as Granz, making the audience like him from his first set of lines. Roz White has a voice I could have listened to all night, but sadly, barely gets to use it in this character. I look forward to the next chance I can get to see her perform. Wynonna Smith demonstrates an endearing sweetness as young Ella, however, the only difference between her two characters was the costume. There were no voice changes or personality differences, merely glasses and a different dress.

And then there's the band - a group of top-notch incredible musicians, who follow Payne's every whim. They made the audience clap, dance in their seats, and enjoy every delicious moment of music. I could have listened to them for hours after the curtain call. Perhaps, if the show had merely been a concert with occasional supporting character monologues, it would have fared infinitely better.

The set, designed by Carl Gudenius, is straightforward. A moveable screen divides the live band from the audience, and is used for transitions. There are small areas on each side of the stage for scenes, usually Ella's dressing room. The main dressing room setup, constructed on the right side of the stage, ended up taking away from the performance. A wooden black outline, meant to be Ella's dressing table mirror, cut off the view for anyone along the left side of the theatre. In a house of that size, it would be beneficial to take into account what could be missed given angle, color, and size of set pieces.

If you are simply looking for night of good music, where you can clap and tap to your heart's desire, MetroStage has your show. But if you are looking for a show with developed characters, a true leading lady, and a book that leaves you fulfilled, sadly, this production comes up several notes short.

Ella: First Lady of Song runs from January 23rd to March 16th. For more on the production, visit the show's website.

Photo Credit: Chris Banks


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