By Arlene McKanic
How many people know that Queens, starting in the 1920s, was once home to a colony of jazz greats? Many of them had sumptuous homes within a few blocks of each other in Addesleigh Park, although Louis Armstrong was famous for living in Corona. Among the denizens of Addesleigh Park back then was Ella Fitzgerald, and a new musical about her, called simply “Ella,” will premier at the Queens Theatre on Sept. 27.
Ray Cullom, executive director of the Queens Theatre, produced the show about a year ago in New Haven. After success in Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and other places, he is now bringing it to Queens.
“It did unbelievably well,” he says. “Tina Fabrique, who plays Ella, is so transcendentally good that the audience thought she was Ella Fitzgerald. It’s a great way to bring that American songbook to a new generation of people.”
The play, directed by Rob Ruggerio, gives audience members a new insight into Fitzgerald, Cullom says.
“She was a private person, a complex person,” he says.
The musical takes place in Nice, France, when Fitzgerald learns that her sister has died. A further complication is that her sister was raising a boy, who did not know that Ella was in fact his mother. All of a sudden, the boy was motherless. It was, Cullom says, one of the few times that Ella showed something of her emotions during a concert.
“Also, along the way you learn how no one would give her a chance,” Cullom claims, “because she wasn’t beautiful. She was a plain girl. But in 1934 she got her chance when the headliners didn’t show up. That’s when it started, and it didn’t stop till 50 years later.”
Cullom first saw Fabrique during a production of “The Women of Brewster Place” at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. “The thing about her playing Ella is she doesn’t sound like Ella, but captures the way Ella interprets a song. She really captures Ella better than someone who tries to sound like her. It’s not a revue, not a concert, but a play.”
Fabrique is backed by a five-piece band during the two-hour show. The band not only provides music, but the band members play different people. The trumpeter, for example, plays Louis Armstrong at one point. “The players step into the shoes of some jazz greats,” Cullom says.
Happily, the musical doesn’t just deal with a particular drama in Fitzgerald’s life, but goes through her whole songbook, from “A Tisket, A Tasket,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and other beloved hits.
“Her career took precedence,” Cullom says. “She didn’t let anything get in the way, not family, not her husbands, not children. I think if she looked back on it she might be a little melancholy, but I don’t think she would have done it any other way.”
A pre-show dinner and reception will be held on Sept. 28 with dinner and cocktails at 6 p.m. before the 7:30 p.m. showing. A cast meet-and-greet will follow.
“Ella” will be at the Queens Theatre till Oct. 7.
If You Go
Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Sept. 27 through Oct. 7