CL and I had gone to a local bar/restaurant for their “Ella Fitzgerald Karaoke Night.” When we got there, the rules were spelled out a little more clearly – you didn’t have to sing an Ella Fitzgerald song, but whatever you sang, you had to ‘scat’ part of it in Ella’s honor. The patrons that night were thus treated to my scat renditions of “Margaritaville” and “Unchained Melody.” They were well received, as were CL’s efforts, and we ended up winning first prize.
First prize? Yeah – I don’t think I knew anything about any prizes when I walked in the door, but it turned out there were prizes. In all modesty, I have to admit that we were kind of lucky the turnout that night was rather small, so there wasn’t a lot of competition. Anyway, first prize was a season subscription to the Northlight Theatre in Skokie. Last night was the first show of that subscription. The show – not coincidentally – was Ella, a celebration of Ella Fitzgerald and her music.
The cast consisted of Ella, her manager, and four musicians, most of whom also threw in lines of dialogue as various characters from behind their respective instruments, but it was Ella who had over 90% of the lines, as well as a plethora of songs. As for my review of the show, it’s a little tricky, because there were certain things that were utterly delightful and supremely entertaining, but there were other aspects that did not quite meet that standard.
Let’s start with the band. They were terrific – an absolutely crackerjack group of guys, playing piano, drums, stand-up bass, and trumpet. I’ve got nothing bad to say about any of them. They played wonderfully together, and as soloists, and in concert with Ella. The trickier review is of the actress playing Ella.
It would be accurate to say that this was a tour-de-force performance. This lady can sing! And she can act! At times, her channeling of Ms. Fitzgerald was a true wonder. And her workload was a heavy one. She had to sing, and sing, and talk, and sing, and talk some more, and sing some more. Whew! I’m just about in awe of her stamina and talent. But if I’m going to be fair and complete, I have to discuss the negative stuff too.
It is worth noting that this show opened in November, and we saw the third-from-last performance before it closes. I think that’s significant because I think what I was hearing at times was a tired voice from the actress portraying Ella. Many of her sustained notes wandered badly off-pitch. These were not choices being made by a performer for dramatic effect; they were defects in the singing process. To my ear, this was not because the actress had a bad ear; it was because her breathing was off, and it sounded as if her breathing was off because her voice was tired.
Part of me hates to come down on her for this. A run like this, playing a role of this sort, is something I would frankly fear taking on myself. In fact, if I were to learn that this actress had been sitting in the back of the bar during my karaoke performances, I would probably die from shame. But fair is fair, and the fact is, quite a few of those notes last night were clanking badly where they shouldn’t have been clanking. She sang many songs in which this wasn’t an issue, but when her breathing went south, her notes went there as well.
So after all of that, what’s my overall review? That’s easy – I had a great time. I was tremendously entertained, and I wish it were running longer so I could recommend to some friends who I know would appreciate it. The other thing I’ll add is that this was my first trip to the Northlight Theatre, and the demographic spread of their audience is such that there were precious few people in attendance who were younger than I am, so I felt very young indeed!