Ella: The First Lady of Song (The Ella Fitzgerald Story), Black Ensemble Theater. In writer-director Jackie Taylor’s musical homage to the grande dame of jazz, three performers portray Ella Fitzgerald from youth into her 70s. Evelyn Danner is the most vivid, giving the singer’s early hits a real sense of joy. And as the elder Ella, Marilyn Grimes has the ability to scat and sing ballads with equal style and feeling. But Ava Logan as the middle-aged Ella seems too controlled and rigid.
Unfortunately none of the actors can make Taylor’s bluntly expository dialogue seem natural. Every scene commences abruptly as C.J. Maddox, playing Ella’s cousin-assistant, narrates an overly succinct survey of Ella’s life that covers abuse by her stepfather, her singing debut, her connection to bandleader Chick Webb, and her marriage to Ray Brown. Overall the treatment is formulaic–a makeup table onstage is always a clue that an emotional scene or sad memory is on the way.
But like other Black Ensemble shows, this one is really more a concert with a biographical through line than a play–and it has the same upbeat appeal as its predecessors. These Ellas can sing, and the band, led by musical director Cortez D. Sims, swings. So when the evening gives way to songs such as “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” “The Man I Love,” “Mack the Knife,” and “My Funny Valentine,” you might say “‘S Wonderful.”