Weston Playhouse Stages "Ella: The Musical"

07/16/12 5:30PM By Nina Keck
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Weston Playhouse/Hubert Schreibl
Joliet F. Harris performs as Ella Fitzgerald.
Ella Fitzgerald spent nearly 60 years in the spotlight.   She won 13 Grammy awards, the National Medal of the Arts, the Presidential Freedom Award and millions of fans around the world.   But who was Ella? Really? A musical at the Weston Playhouse peels back the curtain to tell the poignant, real-life story of this notoriously private jazz legend.

Joilet Harris has done her share of performing over the years - on stage, on TV, in movies.   But playing the First Lady of Song, the Queen of Jazz, playing Ella?   Those are big shoes to fill.

 "Yeah," says Harris, "it was a challenge."  "Sit with DVDs, CDs videos sitting at a table with honest to goodness, a legal pad writing down scadidily-dop-de- woop-de-wap. ... So, I'm trying to give it that as best I can. " 

Fitzgerald's nearly pitch perfect voice could sing just about anything.  But it was her ability to scat - to riff on a melody like a trumpet or saxophone that really set her apart among jazz singers. 

 Joilet Harris says it's not an easy skill to master.  

"In scatting you're taught to listen to what the horns play," she said. "That's how you get the movements of the scat phrasing," says Harris.  "A lot of it is trying to get your tongue loosened up - to get the repetitiveness of the phrases you're doing. I'll do dldldldldldldld. - so my tongue moves quickly."

Director Tim Fort says like a lot of Ella Fitzgerald fans, he didn't know much about the singer beyond her music.   But he says her life story is as powerful as her voice.  To tell that story, Fort says the playwrights set the musical in 1966.  Ella's half sister - the person closest to her at the time - has just died and the 49-year-old singer is distraught.   "But," says Fort, "She's expected to perform at a televised concert and her manager is demanding that the shy star interact more with the audience."  

"Ella says, ‘Well, I don't do patter and I don't want to talk about myself.'   " But," Fort says, "then he leaves, everybody leaves the stage and she starts thinking about what she might say and then we start to learn about her past and little scenes play out as we see her grow up and become the Ella that we know.

The musicians become characters and in scenes played out you learn that her father was out of the picture early; that her step father sexually abused her; and that her mother died when Ella was just 15.   Undaunted, she entered a talent show that same year at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater.  She planned to dance. But she was intimidated by dancers who went on before her.   So Ella sang.  The crowd was wowed and her career was launched.   Any hurt, any pain was tucked away. 

Joilet Harris admits she's endured similar heartbreak and says like Ella she's an introverted extrovert.  "I understand her," says Harris. "And what we do is to live out who we want to be on stage.  We live our lives through our music and the audience. That instant gratification," says Harris, "that instant applause that instant approval that you didn't necessarily get from the rocking of your mother in her arms or the nurturing of your dad - you get it from your audience."

Audiences that Harris hopes can now get a more nuanced and realistic picture of Ella Fitzgerald the woman.  

Ella, the musical has been on tour since 2005.  The Weston is the first theater in the country to put on a regional performance.

Weston Playhouse

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