“…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
Birdland is peppered with show biz illuminati tonight, performers and songwriters alike. There’s a buzz in the air. The occasion is a coming out party for Karen Mason’s first CD in 8 years. Rather than an evening of eleven o’clock numbers, the beautifully calibrated show, selections from It’s About Time plus a few earlier favorites, showcases an actress who knows how to inhabit intensity without volume.
Ira and George Gershwin’s “Love is Here to Stay” strolls in on Tedd Firth’s nuanced piano. This is when one hears just how good she is. Its sentiment is mature, authentic, the vocal pure. Ba-dump-da-da-da-da “Just in Time” hitches a ride, mid-tempo, but eeeazee. (Jule Styne/Betty Comden/Adolph Green from Bells Are Ringing.) Its title line rides very cool percussion. Mason slowly revolves slowly taking us all in. She doesn’t so much bounce as dance in place as if about to.
Referring to “4000 sent emails,” the artist quips that all those years she was trying to be a nice girl, when it’s the annoying one that fills the room. Comfortable on stage, she’s gracious and wry. A gauzy “Finding Wonderland” (Frank Wildhorn/Jack Murphy from Wonderland) is paired with Alan Menken/Tim Rice’s optimistic “A Whole New World” (from Aladdin). We see her imagine the latter with such focus its as if sheer will might manifest change. Watch the left hand, fingers splayed, rise and reach forward …with you…fading like the curl of a smoke ring.
Chita Rivera, Chicago’s original Velma Kelly, is in tonight’s audience. Mason declares that performing “All That Jazz” in front of one of the women who introduced the number (with Gwen Verdon) is the ballsiest things she’s ever done. “Chita did the singing/dancing version. I’m going to do the singing/personality moving version.” It’s superb. She takes her time, elongating, sizzling, vocal rising like a geyser, spreading before falling. Hips gyrate just a tad, mischievous, restrained. The left foot kicks back. (John Kander/Fred Ebb)
Brian Lasser’s utterly lovely “I Met a New Friend” and the tandem “Lorna”/”I Want to Be With You” (Charles Strouse/Lee Adams from Golden Boy) are deftly understated. The former, a well painted story-song, is tender. The latter, accompanied by dramatic piano, leaves Mason’s fierce vocal to cut to the bone.
Special Guest, songwriter/producer Paul Rolnick (Mason’s husband), also has a CD debuting. Accompanying himself on the soft rock “Strumming My First Guitar” (written with John Nanni) he in fact, utilizes his very first guitar. It has a Superman sticker on one side. As a performer, the artist is comfortable, like a favorite pair of old jeans. His voice (and songs) feel honest and familiar.
Rolnick also offers his CD’s title song, Emmy nominated “Shoot for the Moon” (written with Dennis Scott) in duet with Mason- describing and performed with palpable affection. My favorite of this segment is “Cold Enough to Cross” (written with Henry Cory): Though this river may be frozen/We should try at any cost/Cause now it might be cold enough to cross…a poetic, country-sounding ballad with the plainspeak wisdom of a good haiku and swaying melody.
Four iconic selections by Mason follow. Among these are Harold Arlen/George Gershwin’s “The Man That Got Away” and Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow.” Mason tells us Judy Garland, who introduced both these songs, was a huge influence on her. Steal from the best, she tells us, then make it your own. She does.
Fully able to careen off the walls with the skill of an aerialist, Mason instead approaches the Gershwin song in thrall to pain, unlike Garland, unable to unleash till the very end. As to the Harburg, I can’t help but recall Julie Wilson’s admonition that no one should attempt it. “I’ve resisted this song for many years,” Mason tells us. Bearing witness, she delivers affecting hope against hope, perhaps speaking for us all, but also in her own distinct voice.
We close with “It’s About Time.” (Paul Rolnick/Shelly Markham.) Created bespoke for the marriage of gay friends, the song is universal, heartfelt, and gracefully crafted. I recommend its use on loving occasions. I found myself humming its melody on the way home.
Musicianship is impeccable. Direction admirably invisible.
I’m sorry you missed this one.
Photos by Maryann Lopinto
It’s About Time and Shoot for the Moon CDs are available on:
Karen Mason’s website
CD Baby – Karen Mason
CD Baby – Paul Rolnick
Karen Mason: It’s About Time
Guest: Paul Rolnick
Directed by Barry Kleinbort
Music Supervisor- Christopher Denny
Tedd Firth-MD/Piano, Bob Renino-Bass, Rex Benincasa-Drums
Birdland Jazz Club
315 West 44 Street