“…Dear Ms. Fitzgerald…The first time I saw you was on tv…You were singing…clear and velvety smooth…like you were making a beautiful painting with your voice…” The daughter of two professional singers, Broadway denizen Andrea Frierson has felt an affinity with Ella Jane Fitzgerald (1917-1996) since childhood. Bookended by letters, this show parallels Frierson’s life (and that of her family) with Fitzgerald’s, not in terms of actual incidents, but rather professional experience and the icon’s influence. The author/performer wisely doesn’t try to imitate her heroine, she channels her.
Between vocals, Fitzgerald’s biography is peppered with four line poems written by Frierson: Hollywood came a-calling /I went!/Salary they paid me- three times my rent/Oh Chick…if only you could see/All the good you brung to me…This, as if by Fitzgerald, refers to Ella’s invitation to Hollywood because of popularity with Chick Webb’s band. A single reference to experienced prejudice elicits: A first-class ticket to a Jim Crow affair/The dress code is black and white/The misery’s private; inherited by birth/Enjoy your second-class flight…The novelty mostly works.
Signature numbers like “Honeysuckle Rose,” “A Tisket a Tasket,” “Goody, Goody,” “Lady Be Good,” “How High the Moon,” and “The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” arrive with confidence and style. Frierson is a fine singer. She has superb control, a classy swing, mellow scat, and a long note that never pushes. Ballads whisper and swell, be-bop feels effervescent. Phrasing is impeccable, gestures kept to a minimum.
Projected images of Fitzgerald and Frierson through the years are joined by photos of The Apollo Theater, streets of Harlem, album covers, and newspaper headlines adding atmosphere. Relevant sound effects are occasionally employed to create time and place.
The show is in development. At this point Frierson’s own story, especially in regard to that of her family, intrudes too often with tenuous analogy in order to include certain songs. A set of peripheral cousins, one boyfriend, and a Beatles number could be easily jettisoned. Though she sings George Gershwin’s “Porgy” beautifully, it doesn’t relate to Fitzgerald the way “Summertime”, a similar vocal opportunity, would. “Laura” is justified by a mention of Million Dollar Movie and “Get Out of Town” doesn’t work in response to bigotry experienced on American Airlines.
This is meant to be constructive criticism. Me & Ella is thoroughly entertaining. Fitzgerald’s story is well told. Much of Frierson’s history is charmingly related. The artist can clearly act and boy can she sing! Enthusiasm and affection are palpable.
Directors Murphy Cross & Paul Kreppel spotlight Frierson’s vocal appeal and storytelling.
Ron Abel’s excellent arrangements are engaging and evocative of Fitzgerald.
The band, featuring Abel on piano, Rex Benincasa- Percussion and Richie Goods-Bass, is first rate.
Photos by Ben Strothmann.
Photo of Ella Fitzgerald- Wikipedia
The York Theatre Company presents
Me & Ella- Written and Performed by Andrea Frierson
Music Direction & Arrangements by Ron Abel
The Theater at St. Peter’s 618 Lexington Avenue
Through July 23, 2017
NEXT: JERRY’S GIRLS August 8-15