First Lady of Song Swings, Sings and Shares a Life Story in Musical Premiere Ella — Off the Record

News   First Lady of Song Swings, Sings and Shares a Life Story in Musical Premiere Ella — Off the Record TheaterWorks, the Off-Broadway-style theatre in downtown Hartford, Connecticut, presents the world premiere of Ella — Off the Record, a musical portrait of singer Ella Fitzgerald starring Tina Fabrique, June 17-Aug. 7.
Tina Fabrique in Ella
Tina Fabrique in Ella

The late vocalist was known as "The First Lady of Song," and her many recordings — with early jazz bands or with co-performers such as Louis Armstrong or with great arrangers such as Nelson Riddle on various "Songbook" albums — are prized by fans.

In Ella — Off the Record, "the legendary singer recounts memories of her extraordinary life, enticing us into her world with an abundance of her most beloved music."

Tina Fabrique (Broadway's Ragtime, Off-Broadway's Dessa Rose) stars and sings nearly two-dozen Ella favorites with a combo. Opening night is June 24.

Ella — Off the Record was conceived by Rob Ruggiero (who directs) and Dyke Garrison. The work was scripted by Dyke Garrison; musical direction and arrangements are by Danny Holgate.

The setting for Ella — Off the Record is a Los Angeles recording studio in 1966 where Ella Fitzgerald invites a combo of her favorite musicians to jam with her. "As the session unfolds we meet the singer as we've always wanted to know her: candid, humorous and forthcoming," according to production notes. "Swept along by a cascade of her best loved music, we experience Ella's emotional highs and lows as she breaks through to a celebration of living." Among tunes expected to be heard 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" and many more.

Fabrique appeared on Broadway in Ragtime and Off-Broadway in Dessa Rose. Her other Broadway and tour credits include Bring in 'da Noise/Bring in 'da Funk (as Da Singer), Harlem Song, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with Ann-Margret, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker (Miss Jones), Once on This Island, Gospel at Colonus, The Wiz (Glinda), Truly Blessed (Mahalia Jackson), South Pacific with Robert Goulet, Bubbling Brown Sugar and as a soloist at Radio City Music Hall.

Also on stage are George Caldwell on piano as Ella's longtime accompanist "Al"; Longineu Parsons on trumpet as Ella's closest friend "Lonnie"; Hartford area favorite Paul Brown on bass; and Arti Dixson on drums.

Director and co-conceiver Rob Ruggiero told Playbill.com that following the success of the Billie Holiday portrait Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill at TheaterWorks (and around the country), he wondered if the life of Ella Fitzgerald (1917-96) might be the stuff of musical drama.

As it turns out, there was less obvious conflict in the life of scat-singing Fitzgerald as compared to the drug-addicted Holiday.

"Her life is not dramatic in that she didn't have a drug addiction or an abortion," Ruggiero said. "But she was amazing in what her contributions was — the range of the American songbook."

Where do you start dramatically when your subject lacks conflict? Start at the beginning, Ruggiero suggested.

"She had a difficult beginning but she rose," Ruggiero said. "She lost her mother at an early age, and her stepfather, on some level, abused her. It was not a happy situation. She lived with her aunt for awhile and ended up in a detention center."

But at age 15 Ella Fitzgerald blossomed in front of an Apollo Theatre audience, and the rest is history. With her little-kid voice, she sang "Object of My Affection" at the Apollo, Ruggiero said, although in Ella — Off the Record she sings "Love and Kisses" in that dramatic plot spot.

Ruggiero said the new musical is not a traditional book musical or a documentary.

"I tried hard to not make it a docudrama," Ruggiero explained. "I tried to make it an intimate glimpse into the real Ella. In Act One, she's just in the recording studio with the boys. She transcends the studio in Act Two and lives in the concert world."

She shares her life stories organically, chatting with her jazz-playing colleagues, or with her audience.

The year Ella is set, 1966, was an unsettled and low time, the director said. Her sister Frances has just died, and it's a rare year that Ella has no recording contract.

Director Ruggiero is TheaterWorks' associate artistic director. Set design is by Michael Schweikardt; costume design is by Alejo Vietti; lighting design is by Jeff Croiter; sound design is by Michael Miceli; production manager is John Sadler.

TheaterWorks is at 233 Pearl Street in downtown Hartford.

Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7:30 PM; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM. There are matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 PM. Tickets are $35, except Friday and Saturday evenings, which are $45. Center reserved seats are $10 extra. There are free tickets for ages 12-16 for select performances (call for information).

For information and reservations call TheaterWorks at (860) 527-7838 or visit www.theaterworkshartford.org.

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