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Ella, First Lady of Song At MetroStage

Jordan Wright
February 4, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Freda Payne as Ella Fitzgerald  - photo credit Chris Banks

Freda Payne as Ella Fitzgerald – photo credit Chris Banks

Maurice Hines wants to entertain you, in the same way he’s entertained audiences through seven decades from Broadway to Vegas, and most recently at DC’s Arena Stage where his show Maurice Hines is Tappin’ thru Life opened recently to rave reviews.  This time Hines is back in town directing Ella, First Lady of Song a show he conceived and choreographed.

The musical-on-steroids spans Ella Fitzgerald’s hard life and good times.  Beginning in 1934 during The Great Depression through her halcyon days on France’s Cote D’Azur and her famed Philharmonic concerts, the story traces her childhood days singing on the streets of Harlem and her success at an amateur night contest at the Apollo Theatre, the historic venue that launched many an African-American performer’s career.  As you might expect, to properly express the eight-decade career of this greatest of American Jazz singers, there’s a lot of material, both musical and personal, to draw from and a lot to gloss over.  Hines spends less time on Ella’s struggles and insecurities, than on the music.  In fact the show could be more accurately described as a concert, rather than a biography.  And that would be most appropriate, since it’s been said Ella didn’t dwelled on her disappointments.

Roz White as Georgiana and Wynonna Smith playing Young Ella - Photo  credit Chris Banks

Roz White as Georgiana and Wynonna Smith playing Young Ella – Photo credit Chris Banks

Hines has cast iconic pop singer Freda Payne to play the diva’s counterpart.  The successful recording artist, who herself has eighteen albums and a pair of gold records under her belt, proves an irresistible choice to channel Ella’s voice and gestures, trading eights and fours with the band like a hot knife through butter.

Tom Wiggin plays Ella’s agent, Norman Granz, a white man who fought for her career through the years of prejudice towards a black performer playing on white stages.  “I’m in the long shot business,” Granz explains pushing to book Ella into “Whites Only” venues.  Wynonna Smith does double duty as young Ella and Ella’s sister Frances.  Rounding out the four-member cast is Helen Hayes Award-winning actress Roz White who plays Ella’s cousin and long-time personal assistant, Georgiana.  Together their first-rate voices and moving portrayals make up this strong supporting cast.

Tom Wiggin as Norman Granz, Ella’s manager - photo credit Chris Banks

Tom Wiggin as Norman Granz, Ella’s manager – photo credit Chris Banks

William Knowles conducts the sizzlin’ hot five-piece band on piano, sax, trumpet, bass and drums as Payne hits the heights with a vocal range that sends chills up your spine.  Covering twenty-seven songs, from Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing” to George and Ira Gershwin’s “Oh, Lady Be Good”, and from Harold Arlen’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” to Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Mack the Knife”, the music span forty years of the best in Swing, Bebop, Scat and Jazz.

Highly recommended.

To get your groove on swing on down to MetroStage.  Through March 16th  at 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

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