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If It Ain't Got That Swing

It's ten years this month since songstress Ella Fitzgerald died. Fitzgerald, whose romantically distinctive voice has gently passed from generation to generation since her first recordings in 1936, didn't so much have her own "songs" in the way that Johnny Cash has "I Walk the Line" but instead made anything she sang an "Ella" experience. That's why it feels inauspicious to head out for the musical biography Ella, which opened last week at Florida Stage.

Biographical musical reviews are always fraught with danger. What if the person channeling, say, Billie Holiday or John Lennon doesn't make the grade? After all, there are reasons why Holiday and Lennon became themselves.

In the past year, Florida Stage has boldly sent up the Andrews Sisters and Judy Garland in similar musical bios, so the company clearly maintains positive support and a sturdy infrastructure for such creations. Our expectations are raised particularly high for its current offering, however, because Fitzgerald is so much dearer in many of our hearts. Her recordings, especially of the Cole Porter songbook, have never lost their currency. Can you remember the last time you threw an Andrews Sisters' CD on your stereo?

The nervous question as you take your seat is, then, what person can possibly inhabit Ella Fitzgerald for the next two hours? Did they call in a ringer?

The answer is yes and no. Tina Fabrique — strong, dynamic, and engaging — here re-creates her original performances last year in Ella: Off the Record, produced at TheaterWorks in Hartford, Connecticut. Ella is an expansion of that piece, commissioned by Florida Stage and consolidated by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, director Rob Ruggiero, and musical arranger Danny Holgate.

Fabrique delivers a rich cabaret of Fitzgerald songs, from "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" and "Night and Day" to "That Old Black Magic" and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off." In this sense, then, Fabrique is a ringer, seemingly the leading Ella impersonator around.

But here's the flip side, which has to do with verisimilitude and the head-scratching phenomenon of the musical biography itself.

Ella's story takes you back to a 1966 concert rehearsal, where Fitzgerald is joined in the recording studio by her raucous band — in the Florida Stage version, Chuck Bergeron on bass, George Caldwell on piano, Frank Derrick on drums, and Longineu Parsons on trumpet. The band members also lend their voices to represent the men who pass through her life. Her manager, Norman Granz (played by Dan Leonard), periodically appears from offstage to nudge the singer's business decisions.

Between studio session numbers, Fitzgerald does what's expected, laying out her life in a series of prosaic true confessions. You know the drill — the humble beginnings, the lousy marriages, the ups and downs, the sins and the penances.

Through this expiation, you learn some useful facts. Fitzgerald's first performance was at Amateur Night at the Apollo. Her first big song was "A Tisket, a Tasket." But as one of the hardest-working entertainers around, Fitzgerald's scandal-free existence makes each personal anecdote seem trivial and mundane when compared with her lush music. OK, so she left her son at home for long stretches while touring the world. Yawn.

Theater producers seem to be well on their way to digging up all of our iconic music heroes for due exploitation. Currently on Broadway is Jersey Boys (about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons), preceded in the past couple of years by All Shook Up, Ring of Fire, and Lennon, the Musical. This may be good news to some. If so, then note that through Ella and last year's Sisters of Swing, Florida Stage is sending a clear signal that Times Square doesn't own original musical stage productions.

The problem is that, as Ella shows, you were never really all that interested in Ella Fitzgerald's life, at least not in the same way you relished the sordid gossip surrounding Judy Garland and Johnny Cash. Fitzgerald was everyone's darling, the Holy Spirit that inhabited the words of major 20th-century composers. What would Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, the Gershwin brothers, Irving Berlin, or Johnny Mercer have done without her translations?

During intermission, a warm octogenarian next to me was close to tears as she told me about a concert of Fitzgerald's and Ellington's that she attended many decades ago. Fitzgerald was this woman's darling too. "Ella's voice was more delicate," she told me in comparison with Fabrique's, a comment that hits home at the realness of this experience.

What goes through your head most during Ella is that as good as Fabrique and her band are — and they are excellent — missing is the indefinably distinct charisma of Fitzgerald's darling voice, which took Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets" and "Anything Goes" to places no one else could. It was a once-in-a-century voice.

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Dave Amber