The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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The theater swings with ‘Ella’

“Ella” is a fantastic musical event that captures the life of a jazz legend.

The First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, is memorialized in “Ella,” a biographical musical featuring famous music and touching memories leading up to Fitzgerald’s 1967 landmark concert on the French Riviera.

The Dallas Theater Center has teamed up with Chicago’s Northlight Theatre to bring this show to the Dallas community. “Ella” features 14 of Fitzgerald’s greatest hits including the upbeat “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and the showstopping “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”

The title role is played by E. Faye Butler, who is no stranger to the DTC’s stage or portraying ladies of song. In 1999, she portrayed diva songstress Dinah Washington in the production of “Dinah Was.” Butler, winner of five Joseph Jefferson Awards honoring excellent actors in the Chicago area, capably portrays Fitzgerald.

Throughout her career, Fitzgerald was told to be more like Billie Holiday in order to keep audiences interested. But “Fitz,” as she was often called, was more like “Doris Day and Lady Day.” So how do you put on an engaging show about one of the most straight-edged jazz singers of the 1960s, and how do you make it interesting?

“Ella” delves into Fitzgerald’s personal life, touching on emotional issues of her past. The first act shows Fitzgerald after her sister’s funeral when she first arrived in Nice, France. She practices her “patter” and tells stories about her troubled past unknown to the audience. Tales of sexual assault, failed relationships and death of loved ones is enough to make any skilled actor become a character, but there is something left to be said about Butler’s theatrical performance.

Butler struggles to channel the jazz star and can’t seem to connect to the character during the serious, emotional scenes. The heightened emotions were often stilted and the drama was forced, which may leave audiences feeling uncomfortable. But her lack in emotional connectivity is more than made up for in her comedic timing and stage presence.

In the second act, on the other hand, Butler shines. In this look into the 40-minute concert on the Côte d’Azur in Nice, the audience is transported and Butler finally channels her subject. The banter between the audiences is an absolute delight. She is a very charming performer who knows how to work a room. Her singing ability without a doubt surpasses her acting ability. For over two hours, her impressive scat and captivating voice never faltered. She has a smooth, sultry voice with an underestimated power that leaves audiences speechless. Butler’s performance of the final number of the show caused a standing ovation halfway through the song at Saturday’s performance.

One of the highlights of the show is the chemistry between Butler and her four-piece ensemble: conductor and pianist Anderson Edwards, drummer Walter Kindred, bass player John Whitfield and trumpet player Ron Haynes, who wows the crowd in a scene in which he channels Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong with not only his astounding trumpet playing, but his uncanny vocal impression.

Overall, “Ella” is a great performance that leaves heads bobbing and feet tapping. “Ella” has the power to transport audiences and make you want to swing. Even if you aren’t a jazz fan, or have never experienced jazz, “Ella” will leave you with a new-found appreciation for the lost art.

Due to popular demand, the Dallas Theater Center has extended its run of “Ella” through Feb. 24 at the Kalita Humphrey’s Theater off of Turtle Creek in Dallas. Tickets range from $16 to $60. For more information, visit dallastheatercenter.org or call the box office at 214-522-8499.

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