Monday, March 10, 2008

Ella at Arena Stage

Put bluntly, Tina Fabrique was the only reason to see Ella back in January and February at Arena Stage. What a gal! And what a terrific set of pipes!

I wish I could muster the same enthusiasm for the book which, according to the Arena Stage web site, was "conceived by Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison." That verb is telling: conceptions, if properly formulated, eventually become creations, but Ella, alas, resists the happy translation from idea to artifact. Half-baked, it is very much a "conception," not a finished play.

In all fairness, the lackluster script cannot solely be blamed on Ruggiero and Garrison (and who, by the way, is sufficiently benighted to name a child "Dyke"?).  At bare minimum, a bio-drama (like a bio-pic) requires a memorable personality dropped into an interesting cultural moment; shake 'em both up, and you hopefully get a nice cocktail of dramatic conflict. While the Big Band scene that forms the backdrop for Ella is colorful, the singer's life wasn't and therein lies part of the problem. Yes, Ella Fitzgerald had a tough start in life, but so did many others during the Depression; and, sadly, her inability to realize lasting love is hardly unique. She was a craftswoman: technically brilliant and artistically inspired, she became her sound. Just mention "Ella," and people smile in recognition, instantly hearing her unsurpassable renditions of Gershwin and Cole Porter. Like Sinatra, she was truly sui generis.

A distinctive vocal style, however, does not a story make, and Ruggiero and Garrison, desperate to infuse some life into the book, impute to Fitzgerald a feminist consciousness that allows her to critique, loudly and sassily, the lot of women or the unjust times. At points, I expected Tina Fabrique to break into "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," not "Miss Otis Regrets." It's extremely peculiar, not to mention wildly anachronistic. There's little evidence that Ella Fitzgerald was anything other than a well-mannered, hard-working lady.  Even by Depression standards, she was no Emma Goldman.

There are other peculiarities: the script has Fitzgerald taking swipes at Sinatra, hinting at ill treatment by Ole' Blue Eyes. Sinatra, though, not only acknowledged his indebtedness to Fitzgerald, attributing his phrasing to her characteristically syncopated style, but also professed admiration for the woman and absolute regard for the musician. Just watch the two of them perform together in this 1967 television special: three minutes into the medley, Sinatra sits on the floor, his back to us, generously yielding the stage to Ella's extraordinary scat solo. When the camera pans to Sinatra's face, we see wonder, not disrespect. They would go on to tour together with Count Basie in the 70s; a superstar, Fitzgerald was certainly under little compunction to perform with anyone who treated her poorly, even Sinatra.

The script similarly transforms Norman Granz, Fitzgerald's manager, into another exploitive, unfeeling white male in a vain attempt to imbue her life with the tragic overtones of Lady Day. In actuality, Granz felt strongly about civil rights and refused--even in the fifties--to let restaurants or hotels discriminate against his performers, one of the reasons that musicians like Ray Brown, Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald remained his life-long clients and friends. It goes without saying that the many awards, accolades, and honorary degrees heaped upon Fitzgerald are never mentioned since they ill accord with Ruggiero and Garrison's representation of Ella the Downtrodden.

Despite her rough start, Fitzgerald actually achieved success early in life, and she maintained a busy work schedule for over forty years. Industriousness, while commendable, is hardly the stuff of high drama, with the result that Ruggiero and Garrison, desperate for conflict, take extraordinary liberties with a well-documented life. In this day of Wikipedia and You Tube, it's easy to pull up basic information or clips from concerts and television, putting additional pressure on writers to justify artistic license. Clearly, art is not biography--nor should it be--but departures from history should add up to something more than tired cliches.

Happily, Fabrique's big, lush voice, backed by a superb combo, dominated the evening and compensated for the lackluster script. Fabrique made the smart decision not to channel Fitzgerald; rather, she reinterprets, paying homage while making the songs her own. In so doing she avoids the creepiness of Kevin Spacey doing Bobby Darrin in the recent film, Beyond the Sea (2004). With Spacey, I found myself simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by his musical reenactment. The voice was eerily right, but the body was so wrong--as if a zombie had taken over Darrin. Fabrique thankfully does not attempt a literal impersonation, freeing us to appreciate her artistry rather than marvel at her mimetic abilities. Overall, Fabrique seems like a pretty good actress: I fault the script for giving her little to do other than strut, complain, and lecture between sets. Arena would have been far better served by a cabaret show; rather than shackling Fabrique to this third-rate script, why didn't they free her to do what she clearly excels at--sing?

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