Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Nearness of You: ELLA! at Actors

Back when Lou was in college, it was hip to like Billie Holiday. We lived a block from Harlem and a subway ride to the best jazz clubs north of the Mississippi (of course back then, we believed they were the best jazz clubs on earth), and Lady Day was "in" with a certain faction of the college crowd.

But me, I always preferred Ella Fitzgerald. At my apartment parties, my mix tapes (yes, I'm that old) always nestled her vocal stylings between those of Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley (we were a subdued crowd... if we really wanted a party we shuffled disco, George Michaels, and Madonna).

I loved Ella. I must have owned seven or more cds. And for that reason, I left Actors Theatre's production of ELLA! elated and scatting and feeling like I'd experienced the next best thing to going to see the real Ella Fitzgerald in concert.

Because, seriously, Tina Fabrique, the woman who plays Ella in this music-packed production, is a treasure. Her voice, her mannerisms, and her bearing all deliver the iconic jazz singer with clear and heartbreaking honesty. If she'd done nothing but sing, I would have watched rapt. The stage "banter"-- which is the driving device of the bio part of the show-- is almost a distraction. (Ella, the character reveals at the beginning of the show that she's been told that she needs to incorporate more "banter" into her productions, thus giving her the opportunity to try out various stories on the audience.)

Backed by a masterful five-piece band, Fabrique sings 23+ partial and full songs from Fitzgerald's repertoire, from the fun and silly ("A Tisket A Tasket"-- a song Grandma Lou used to always sing to me) to the overwhelmingly beautiful (Porter's "Night and Day"). The show runs long-- at least two hours, maybe two hours fifteen-- but I could have stayed all night listening to her. Heck, in college, it wasn't uncommon for me to put an Ella cd on repeat and listen all night while drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes by candle light. I guess that would be called "emo" now.

Honestly, I think this production is one NOT to miss. It's simple yet dazzling. It's charming and heartbreaking. It's a piece of musical history too many people are missing. I wish I could drag every teenager I know to the show. But if you go for one reason alone, go because Tina Fabrique is a treasure.

I went to the show with a new Twitter friend. And as we walked to our respective cars, we started a conversation that we didn't finish. We both loved the show. We both were moved and thrilled. But... we both also questioned whether or not this is "theater." What makes this theater? The banter? The bio parts? The second half is nearly all music, very little story. And what-- besides quality, because I've already established that Fabrique is a mess of talent-- distinguishes this show from "Celebrity Impersonator" shows in Vegas? The good ones. The quality, artistic ones. How is ELLA! theater, and not a top shelf, artsy, thoughtfully presented impersonator show?

Without going too far down the rabbit hole: How do we define theater? ELLA! is a freaking fantastic evening of entertainment with a tremendous amount of heart. But is it theater? If so why? Discuss.

ELLA! runs through 2/20. Go. You'll love it.

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