by Jay Gabler | 9/4/09 • “I was real good at music,” Bruce Springsteen told Rolling Stone in reference to his mid-80s heyday, “and real bad at everything else.” It’s an old story, told many times—most recently on the Guthrie’s McGuire Proscenium Stage, where Tina Fabrique is embodying Ella Fitzgerald in Ella. (Maybe in a couple of decades we’ll have Bruuuuuuce! on the Wurtele Thurst.)
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The production, in which Fabrique portrays Fitzgerald on the brink of collapse (so we’re told) at a performance in France just a few days after the death of her sister, has proven wildly successful; the Guthrie has extended the run twice, so performances are now continuing until September 20. I caught the show for the first time just last night, but the Daily Planet’s Dwight Hobbes was there on opening night and wrote, “If you don’t go and see Fabrique while Ella’s in town, plan on getting sick and tired of hearing your friends and neighbors rave to you over and over about what an incredible evening of sheer magic it was.” Dwight, though, also criticizes the play’s script—by local lion Jeffrey Hatcher—as “uneventful..It begins weakly, passing off contrived conversation as casual interplay between Ella and her band members in the recording studio as they gripe about a meddling producer. It quickly sinks from there into one tell-don’t-show monologue after another until the only thing that saves the production is that you know Fabrique very soon will again break into song.”
Dwight tells it like it is, and essentially, I agree. Fitzgerald did have an interesting personal life, but a really effective dramatization of a life makes the story into a compelling standalone narrative, not just an educational special worth watching because the person whose life is being dramatized ended up doing something exceptional. Dwight’s right that the play-within-a-show concept comes off as contrived: in some ways, the production seems transplanted from one of the suburban dinner theaters. Still, Fabrique is a marvel to see and hear, and the show has been an appropriate neighbor to When We Are Married in a summer of easy pleasures at the Guthrie.
Photo by Ed Krieger, courtesy Guthrie Theater
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