ALBANY For Tina Fabrique, the goal isn’t to perfectly reproduce the wonderfully unique sound of Ella Fitzgerald. Instead, her idea is to introduce people to the person behind the voice.
In “Ella,” Fabrique has been doing a pretty good job on both counts since she originated the role seven years ago in Hartford, Conn. The story of America’s “First Lady of Song” and “Queen of Jazz,” “Ella” begins with previews tonight, opens next Tuesday and runs through Aug. 12.
“Everyone seems to know her voice and her style, but no one seemed to know anything about her life,” said Fabrique, a Harlem native whose Broadway credits include “Ragtime” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
WHERE: Capital Repertory Theatre, 111 S. Pearl St., Albany
WHEN: Previews begin tonight at 8 p.m.; opens Tuesday and runs through Aug. 12; performance times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $75-$20
MORE INFO: 346-6204 or http://proctors.org
“My concern was to tell the story of the woman behind that voice, behind that well-known stage personality and the legendary singer. She was a very interesting woman.”
Set in 1966 backstage at a theater as Fitzgerald prepares for a performance, “Ella” was created in 2005 by director Rob Ruggiero along with Dyke Carson for TheaterWorks in Hartford. Jeffrey Hatcher, whose plays include “Murder by Poe” and the stage adaptation of “Tuesdays With Morrie,” wrote the script.
In the show, Fitzgerald reflects on much of her life, which began on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Va. She and her mother moved to Yonkers when she was a young girl and, in 1932, when Ella was just 15, her mother died of a heart attack. Devastated by the loss, Ella was homeless for a time in New York City. But within two years, on Nov. 21, 1934, her singing voice had earned her a gig at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.
Her recording career lasted 59 years until her death due to diabetes on June 15, 1996.
She sang jazz and bebop and was known for her three-octave range as well as perfect tone and diction. She earned 13 Grammy Awards, and became a mainstream star in 1956 with the release of an album titled “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook.”
Fabrique, who grew up in Harlem, actually saw Fitzgerald when her mother took her to a performance at the Apollo Theater when she was 12.
“I was just a young girl and I was so excited,” remembered Fabrique. “My mother asked me if I wanted to go backstage and meet her, but I was extremely shy and scared, so we didn’t. I’ve heard since that she was quite kind and very approachable.”
Talking to colleagues
While Fabrique never actually met Fitzgerald, she has had several conversations with a few of her co-workers, including saxophonist James Moody.
“He came to see the show in San Diego and invited me over to his house after the performance,” said Fabrique. “He told me a lot of old stories and we talked for over an hour. I’ve talked to quite a few people who knew her and they all say she was very kind.”
Fabrique grew up singing in her church choir and listened to the albums her mother put on the record player, an eclectic group that included performers like Sarah Vaughan and Fitzgerald. Sometimes, Fabrique would sing while her mother played the piano.
“My mother loved classical music and she loved Cole Porter, so she would always ask me to sing since I was the only one in the family who sang,” said Fabrique. “It always amazed me how effortlessly the words came out of Ella, and her scatting was very exciting to me. Nobody could scat the way Ella could.”
In order to portray Fitzgerald on the stage, Fabrique has had to alter her delivery to a degree.
“I’m a little bit more of a Sarah Vaughan type, and that’s kind of the difference between a sax and a trumpet,” she said. “The way I look at it is this, I’m not interested in being a perfect imitation of her vocally. I just want to be authentic to her style, and I have a similar range. As a singer, I had to lighten my tone a little bit and try to create her charisma and the way she phrased things. What I’m doing is trying to capture her essence.”
Fabrique says her singing and acting skills are so intertwined she can’t really separate them.
“I always sang, so I guess I have to say I kind of fell into acting,” she said. “But I’ll be very honest with you and say that I don’t know if I’m an actor who sings or a singer who acts. I don’t know anymore because they’ve always blended together for me. I was always acting out whatever material I was singing, so it came very naturally for me. But I can also say that I’ve had some wonderful experiences just doing straight plays.”
Although her parents were big supporters of Fabrique, they didn’t always encourage her to sing, at least not professionally.
“My mother always believed in my voice, but she wasn’t someone who advocated going into show business,” said Fabrique. “She just didn’t think it worked, and my father believed, like my mother, you don’t make a living singing and dancing on the stage. But I kept at it, and I think really that it was the theater that chose me. I took all the bookkeeping and accounting courses in school. I had other skills and jobs, but then it always seemed like I was able to get a singing job.”
Time with family
Fabrique married young and had two sons. While the marriage didn’t last, she now has four grandchildren, and she spends as much time with them as she can.
“It is so nice to be home and to be with family,” said Fabrique, who has lived in the Bronx for 30 years now. “But I’m divorced and I don’t mind the traveling, so as long as I’m treated well I’ll keep doing this. This role has been wonderful for me. I consider it one of the highlights of my career.”
Fabrique is joined on stage by George Caldwell on piano, Rodney Harper on drums, Ron Haynes on trumpet and Derick Polk on bass. They play various musicians who performed with Fitzgerald, while Harold Dixon plays her manager, Norman Granz.