Freda Payne does some lovely singing in ELLA: FIRST LADY OF SONG, a biographical tribute to the song stylings of one of the best and most versatile singers that ever performed, Ella Fitzgerald. Payne, known for a 1970 pop hit, “Band of Gold” but respected in the realms of music and theater for much more, does especially well on late first act numbers, “The Nearness of You,” “Taking a Chance on Love,’ “Easy Living,” and especially swinging “Lady Be Good.” She repeats that success in “How High the Moon,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and “The Man I Love” in Act Two.
But Freda Payne is Freda Payne, a star in her own right with a distinctive voice and delivery that serves the songs she does best but that does not capture the style or tone of Ella Fitzgerald.
Despite the title and reason for Lee Summers’s show, you don’t want Freda to be Ella. She is at home and entertains grandly as Freda.
There’s the rub. “Ella: First Lady of Song” might do better with a lesser known singer playing the iconic Ella, one who more matches the pure bell-like quality of Ella’s voice, who phrases more naturally in Ella’s way, and who can act.
Payne, as usual, makes you love her. As I’ve said, she earns headliner status. But I repeat she does best when she can do thing her way, as a star would. Except for some first-rate and truly witty scatting, you never think you’re seeing Ella Fitzgerald. You’re always aware you’re seeing Freda Payne.
OK, so you forget about Ella, except in spirit, and revel in Freda, which is never hard to do.
Then where’s the tribute? Where is anything like Audra McDonald losing herself to become Lady Day? Where even is Jessica Wagner channeling definite Winchester, Virginia gods to become Patsy Cline?
The channeling, the sublimation, the transformation doesn’t happen in Wilmington.
“Ella: First Lady of Song” is entertaining in spite of this. Especially in its ample musical sequences. But it lacks a core and forgets its focal point. Yes, in Payne you get someone who can stylize and sell a song. That scatting is delicious. But only occasionally do you hear a vocal likeness to Ella Fitzgerald and never is there a physical resemblance, even with a great collection of wigs.
Even if she’s not right for the part of Ella, Freda Payne keeps things humming. There’s good work from Harriett D. Foy, Wynonna Smith, and Jake Blouch, too.
With all of their fineness, there is one problem “Ella” cannot surmount, the slurpy clichéd melodrama of its hit-the-same-note-100-times book.
Summers just lards on layers of angst and hardship that seem to derive from every rags-to-riches show business story for the last two centuries. It wouldn’t surprise me if a drama about the tough life first actress to play “Medea” is among the lost manuscripts of Greece.
Summers’s script has every hackneyed plotline you’ve slogged through since the dinosaurs. All that’s missing is Susan Hayward.
Ella’s poor. Ella’s considered ugly and awkward. Ella embarrasses her family by living unwashed on the street. Ella sings and dances for nickels on street corners. Ella gains recognition by entering a contest. Show biz folk appreciate her talent but are unkind to her. Others want to change her. Then comes that one talent scout who knows how special she is. Stardom brings new challenges. Race is a challenge. Love is challenge. Dealing with her family is a challenge.
A lot that is dramatic occurs in Summers’s play, but none of it elicits genuine emotion because it’s all so cookie-cutter, all so seen-before. And better.
Ella’s story becomes soppy. Harriett D. Foy tires her best to add some fire and some empathy to Summers’s well-worn dialogue. Jake Blouch provides energy as a series of agents. It doesn’t matter. Summers’s book has no traction. It never makes you care.
And, stylistically, it works so hard, overly hard, to make you care.
That’s part of the problem. A routine book is played as if it’s the most serious and compelling in the world, as if a story of interest is being told. And all we see is a plot we could recite in our sleep.
Schmaltz and sentimentality take the place of genuine sentiment that might make a difference.
It is no surprise that the conceiver and director of this begging to make the familiar important is Maurice Hines.
Before going on, I have to say I have met Maurice on several occasion over decades. I danced, as a lark, with him and his brother, Gregory, in a dressing room at the Walnut Street Theatre. (I was interviewing them about “Eubie,” and they taught me a number.)
Maurice is fun, and Maurice is talented. Very, very talented. He could be a master entertainer but for one fault, a fault that makes me cry when I think he can’t overcome it.
He overplays. He almost panders to an audience that would adore him if he would just ratchet down a few levels of needy emotion and let his natural and prodigious talent do the work. Maurice sweats through evenings he has the chops to make a breeze. This is a man who can do more than most entertainers and sabotages himself by practically pleading to be noticed and loved.
I have a preference for discovering new work as it happens rather than reading about in advance. That means I didn’t know Maurice Hines was involved with “Ella” until just before the show began. The minute the book scenes emerged, I sensed his ham-handedness. Nature cannot take its course when every idea or emotion has to be milked to its nth degree, and to the ninth power yet. Summers’s book would never have been good, but it might have proved serviceable, or good enough, as a bridge between songs, if every scene wasn’t played with such anxiety and effort. Instead of magnifying pain or disappointment or loneliness, Hines’s approach cheapened those emotions. Angst and melodrama took the place of simple — simplistic? — storytelling and rendered it inconsequential and par-for-the-course.
Harriett D. Foy worked wonders keeping her head above ground as the cousin/companion who took care of Ella and her affairs during the singer’s many years performing live throughout the world. Jake Blouch proves once again he is among the most versatile and engaging actors in the region. Wynonna Smith contributes mightily as Ella’s younger sister, whose life is more calamitous than Ella’s and devoid of the glory. These actors make the most of what they are given, but they cannot defeat the mushy patina Hines puts on it all.
Freda Payne sings and scats like the champion she is, but her acting has no life to it. Lines are delivered, not given emphasis or conversational color. Payne wins her kudos in song. Foy has to do the heavy lifting dramatically.
All of this makes “Ella: First Lady of Song” a push-me-pull-you kind of show. Fitzgerald-like or not, Payne dominates the house when she steps to a mike to sing. You long for these musical interludes and hope several songs will be done in series. When the singer gets cooking, you don’t care if it’s Ella. Freda is just fine and especially wonderful when she can be herself and noodle freely with the band, as a jazz singer would, or do things Freda excels in that may not be part of Ella’s repertoire.
William Foster McDaniel’s band is the real McCoy and another reason why music is not only the core of this production but the element that saves it. Two the musicians step into character roles, but they do their better work wielding their instruments under McDaniel’s direction.
[Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington, De] April 18-May 13, 2018; delawaretheatre.org