Comparison of Ella, now running at the Guthrie Theater, to Penumbra Theatre Company’s production several seasons ago of Dinah Was… is inevitable. Each brilliantly showcases an extraordinary vocal talent portraying an historic icon, Tina Fabrique as Ella Fitzgerald and Regina Marie Williams as Dinah Washington. If you didn’t catch Williams in her landmark performance at Penumbra you truly missed the boat, but can still get her companion CD, Regina Is…The Songs of Dinah Washington. 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.
Ella runs at The Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Street in Minneapolis, July 21 -September 6. Ticket range: $29 – $65. Box Office: 612.377.2224
Tina Fabrique is a splendid vocalist who exudes engaging presence. With that combination, plus a wonderful backup of pianist and bandleader George Caldwell, drummer Rodney Harper, bassist Clifton Kellem and Ron Haynes on trumpet and several eye-popping solos, she handily carries the show. As did the immortal Ms. Fitzgerald, the vastly talented Tina Fabrique effortlessly does the seemingly impossible. She darts up and down an arching range with pinpoint precision, executes phrases and shades notes using a rich palette of colors and makes it all look easy as falling off a log.
Regina Marie Williams no less acquitted herself to the accompaniment of a skilled combo (led by Sanford Moore), but that is the point after which Ella, unlike Dinah Was… ceases to work. For Dinah Was… the book was a modest but nonetheless effective play by Oliver Goldstick in which fleshed-out characters propelled an intriguing story. Ella has to settle for Jeffrey Hatcher’s uneventful narration by Fabrique of the highlights and pitfalls of Fitzgerald’s professional career and personal life. 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.
Director Rob Ruggiero keeps as brisk a pace as is manageable, given this stillborn script and the dazzling set designed by Michael Schweikardt is a marvel of economy. It would serve the purpose much better, though, to give the audience a bio to take home and simply let them enjoy, uninterrupted, the magic of Tina Fabrique and company offering fine tribute to Ella Fitzgerald.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.
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