Even though Ella Fitzgerald will forever be known as “The First Lady of Song, ” her life was exceptionally uninteresting. Completely devoted to her art, she lived a virtually monastic and nomadic life, taking the gospel of Ella wherever and whenever she could, even after her health had deteriorated to the point where she had to be helped onstage and would have oxygen and a cot waiting for her at stage’s edge. The audience was always Ella’s “family,” wherever she went, and unlike, say, Judy Garland, who always wanted to take the audience home with her and would hit the wagon because she couldn’t, Ella was happy to separate her private and public persona. All of this is why Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Ella” is a disservice to the great singer on so many levels. For all of her obvious talent, E. Faye Butler does not look like, dress like, act like, talk like, nor sing like Ella in any way, shape or form. Her vocal center of gravity is far deeper than Ella’s and all of the vocal “tricks” that Butler displays which are so commonplace among singers—such as over-emoting to create tension, holding back vibrato until a climactic note—are things that Ella herself would never do, and the fact that the opening night audience of this Northlight Theatre production went so crazy for such antics suggests that such an audience would have been bored had it been able to experience the subtlety, playfulness, flexibility and general girlishness of the real Ella. Worse, the four-piece band engaged for this production is a hard-core bebop band with no swing sensitivity, and to quote the Ellington tune that Ella made her own, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” Had a trumpeter played with the over-the-top, bull-loose-in-a-china-shop bravura that trumpeter Ron Haynes constantly displayed, Ella would have restored balance and order. We are also asked to believe that Ella would actually reveal intimate (and fictional) family details in the middle of a concert that are set up in the interest of some semblance of drama but never even resolved. But perhaps the most offensive part of “Ella” is giving her manager Norman Granz credit for Ella’s trademark scat singing when the reality is that Granz was the one who managed to “tame” Ella’s vocal improvisations enough so that she would do straight song renditions of classic standards. All in all, this fictional “Ella” is so off the mark that it comes off more as “The First Lady of Wrong.” (Dennis Polkow)
At Northlight Theatre, 9501 N. Skokie, Skokie, (847)673-6300. This production is now closed.