First Lady of Song Sings of Herself in New Musical, Ella, Premiering in Florida

News   First Lady of Song Sings of Herself in New Musical, Ella, Premiering in Florida Ella, the new musical that weaves the music and memories of Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of American song, opens June 23 in Florida for a summer run that anticipates regional engagements around the country in 2006-07.
Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald

Florida Stage in Manalapan, FL, commissioned Jeffrey Hatcher to rewrite an earlier musical called Ella: Off the Record that played TheaterWorks in Hartford in 2005. Following June 22 previews in Florida, the new Rob Ruggiero-directed production opens June 23 and continues to Sept. 3.

"It's summer, 1966," according to Florida Stage. "Ella Fitzgerald is rehearsing with her band on the stage of a concert hall in Nice. Memories of her extraordinary life pour out of her as richly as her greatest hits in this theatrical event that tells the story of a legendary woman whom everyone adored, but few ever knew."

Tina Fabrique reprises her 2005 turn as Ella, known for her clear diction, her penchant for "scat" singing and — an obstacle for the storytellers — the lack of conflict in her life.

Playwright and screenwriter Hatcher (Three Viewings, Never Gonna Dance "Casanova") joined co-conceiver and director Rob Ruggiero and musical arranger Danny Holgate for this new work. The earlier Ella: Off the Record was co-created by Dyke Garrison.

"After months of hard work, the creative team was able to build, upon the foundation of the original, a richer and fuller depiction of the beloved artist," according to Florida Stage. "The piece showcases her dazzling repertoire while finding the heart and soul of the woman, wife, mother and icon." Fabrique is an acclaimed vocal artist in her own right whose Broadway, Off-Broadway and touring credits include Dessa Rose at Lincoln Center Theater and Bring in 'da Noise Bring in 'da Funk. Among the Ella hits she'll sing are "How High the Moon," "Our Love is Here to Stay," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "That Old Black Magic," "Cheek To Cheek," "Blue Skies," "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," "Love and Kisses," "Cow Cow Boogie," "Angel Eyes," "Mr. Paganini," "The Nearness of You," "Miss Otis Regrets," "I'll Never Be the Same" and more.

Joining Fabrique as Ella's group of accomplished musicians, as well as various characters from Ella’s life, are George Caldwell, Longineu Parsons and Frank Derrick (local favorites, often seen headlining the Palm Beach Pops), and Chuck Bergeron. The voice of producer Norman Granz will be provided by Dan Leonard.

Musical direction and arrangements are by Danny Holgate, who has been involved with the project since the TheaterWorks production, and whose credits include musical director and arranger for Broadway's Don't Bother Me – I Can't Cope and Bubbling Brown Sugar.

Designers include Michael Schweikardt (scenic); John Lasiter (lighting), Alejo Vietti (costume).

For more information about the Florida Stage run, call (800) 514- 3837 or visit www.floridastage.org.

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The coming theatre season around the country will give over to Ella vision. The new musical, Ella, about the life, times and music of singer Ella Fitzgerald, will play no less than nine cities in 2006-07.

Co-conceiver and director Rob Ruggiero will stage the productions at not-for-profit regional theatres — from Massachusetts to the San Jose, with Tina Fabrique starring in the title role for each engagement.

Ruggiero previously told Playbill.com there is interest from commercial producers to bring the First Lady of Song to Manhattan in 2007, or take her on a wider commercial tour.

Late in the Connecticut run of Ella — Off the Record, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (Scotland Road, Three Viewings, Never Gonna Dance) visited to take a look at the show, toward penning a new book for the musical Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison had co-conceived. Garrison penned the earlier script.

One of the challenges of creating the piece, Ruggiero told Playbill.com, was that Fitzgerald didn't have monumental conflict in her life. She even says so in the new version. Enter Hatcher.

"Jeffrey has laced in a stronger dramatic conflict for her," Ruggiero said. "The music has slightly changed, but the book is very different. Act Two previously worked so well because she talked to us, and now she talks to the audience earlier — in Act One. Her relationship with the audience is primary now."

Ella takes place in Nice in 1966, around the time of the death of her half-sister, Frances. She flies from Europe to attend the funeral in the States, and returns for the concert in France. Central to this new version is Ella sparring with her producer, Norman, an off-stage voice who urges her to share patter — to talk to the audience about her life.

What emerges from Hatcher's conflict is an opportunity for Ella to more naturally reflect on and catalog her past experience, which includes a revelation about her son, Ray.

Act One represents a rehearsal, and Act Two takes place at the concert, Ruggiero said.

Both Florida Stage and TheaterWorks will benefit from the show's future life. Once word got out that Ella was a viable property, other nonprofit theatres lined up to book the show in 2006-07.

Following Florida Stage, Ella will play San Diego Rep (Sept. 9-Oct. 15), Arizona Theater Company Nov. 25-Dec. 22 (Tucson) and Dec. 31-Jan. 28, 2007 (Phoenix) and Feb. 2-11, 2007 (Mesa); Cleveland Play House (March 23-April 15, 2007); Asolo Theatre in Sarasota, FL (May 9-June 3, 2007), San Jose Rep (June 23-July 22, 2007) and Barrington Stage Co. (Aug. 9-27, 2007).