KPBS AIRDATE: September 22, 2006
Biopics on the large and small screen often sentimentalize their subjects like after-school specials. In the theater, bio-shows smack of cost-cutting and crowd-pleasing. That’s not entirely a bad thing, but most often, the solo performance makes you want to run home and listen to recordings of the original. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing either, when the originals are George Gershwin and Ella Fitzgerald. Those are pretty huge shoes to fill, but the performers who are in town trying them on manage a pretty satisfying fit. In each case, though the full-blare, megawatt charisma of the brilliant source may not be totally there, the facsimiles offer scintillating moments, and a suspension of disbelief that at times make you almost certain they’re The Real Thing. Both these productions are more concert than play; as is the case with most bio-shows, they’re light on the bio, heavy on the show.
In “Ella,” a West coast premiere at the San Diego Rep, the setting is a 1966 concert in Nice, which her estranged son is supposed to attend. The superstar is anxious and nervous, and she’s urged by her manager to engage in some personal ‘patter,’ which is how we become privy to the backstory. Though the revelations don’t go deep, the text comes directly from Ella’s letters. There are a few emotional moments, but the real high point is the music. There’s a killer four-piece band, featuring intoxicating trumpet solos by Brian Sledge. But the attention is deservedly focused on Tina Fabrique, who has a marvelously pure, supple voice. She may not have the mind-boggling vocal range of Fitz, which spanned three octaves, but she’s definitely “got that swing,” and she can scat like crazy. She evokes rather than imitates Ella, and it works wonderfully in songs like ” ’S Wonderful,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “The Man I Love” and “Lady Be Good.”
It’s the singing that’s the weak spot of “George Gershwin Alone,” at the Old Globe. But the script is more interesting and the piano-playing is terrific. Writer/star Hershey Felder spent five years researching the great composer, playing his Steinway, acquiring and perfecting the precise piano style and getting access to Gershwin family archives. He’s performed the show internationally, more than 2500 times – and he’s magnificent. The story gives thrilling little glimpses into the songwriting process – why a certain note or chord or key was chosen, and how that made the tune unpredictable and unique. The breathtaking, show-ending performance of the complete “Rhapsody in Blue” is alone worth the price of admission.
The nostalgia factor is high in both productions; Felder even gets the audience to sing along. And Fabrique’s Ella does a mighty fine job on some timeless Gershwin tunes.
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.