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That's why the Lady was a champ
THEATER REVIEW | Biography showcases talents of Fitzgerald, Butler

Publication: Chicago Suntimes
Published: December 7, 2007
Client: Northlight Theatre


New Yorkers are now gasping at the sheer bravura intensity of the acting in Steppenwolf's new Broadway hit, "August: Osage County." But they might be equally blown away by the musical side of Chicago-bred talent were they to catch E. Faye Butler's tour de force session in "Ella." This musical biography of master songstress Ella Fitzgerald, which opened Wednesday at Northlight Theatre, serves up more than enough brilliance by way of a single actress (and knockout backup band) to fill the stage of any theater capital.

With "Ella" you get two talents rolled into one seamless whole. First there is Fitzgerald, the peerless song stylist who made her way through the great American songbook with such extraordinary panache, easeful musicianship, impeccable diction and infectious scatting. Then there is Butler herself, with her range-roving voice and superb interpretive skills, plus the kind of (barely suppressed) glam glow and galvanizing energy that Fitzgerald well might have wished for in her private moments. Butler gives us a wholly believable evocation of Ella, but also lets her own megawatt personality shine.

Conceived by director Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Harrison, "Ella" comes with a book by Jeffrey Hatcher that efficiently connects the dots and songs. More crucially, the placement and pacing of the show's two dozen numbers is ideal, beautifully tracking Ella's complicated, pain-streaked life and career through songs that tap precisely the right emotion for the moment.

The show is set in a concert hall in Nice, France, in 1966. Ella, about 50, has just returned from the funeral of her beloved younger half-sister Frances -- the woman who, she tells us, knew her better than anyone else in the world, tried to protect her from a sexually abusive stepfather and, later, even gave her one of her seven children to bring up as her own (a responsibility she bungled). Though devastated by Frances' death, Ella's longtime producer-manager Norman Granz (David Parkes) tells her to soldier on, and she does, delivering a great deal more "patter" than usual.

Butler dazzles, whether on a rousing duet with trumpet on "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)"; on a Carnegie Hall special, "You'll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini)"; on a scat-crazy "Flying Home"; on an unusually angry version of "That Old Black Magic," or on heartbreaking renditions of "S'Wonderful" and "The Man I Love." And that's just the tip of the iceberg. The band is every bit as stellar (even doing some acting chores), with Ron Haynes a beguiling powerhouse on trumpet, Anderson Edwards (pianist-conductor), Walt Kindred (percussion) and John Whitfield (bass). This lady is far more than good; so are the gentlemen.


Northlight Theatre continues its 33rd season with the Midwest premiere of Ella, featuring E. Faye Butler.



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