A lot of pop singers these days lay claim to the title of "diva." But here's a quick test of whether a woman truly belongs in the rarified air of divahood: Is she recognizable by first name only?
The legendary jazz diva Ella Fitzgerald was known as "The First Lady of Song," and is considered one of most influential jazz vocalists of the 20th century. Fitzgerald was gifted with a three-octave vocal range, and noted for her improvisational ability, purity of tone and near flawless phrasing and intonation. She worked with other jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. She was the reigning queen of jazz, and was wildly popular from the late 1930s right up until her retirement in 1990. Fitzgerald died in 1996 in her Beverly Hills home.
Now the beloved singer's life, as well as her music, is being put on the stage in "Ella," opening tonight at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. Playing Fitzgerald in the new musical is Broadway veteran Tina Fabrique, whose own life mirrors Fitzgerald's in small ways.
Both won the weekly talent contest at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem at the age of 16. Fabrique, who says she has been singing all her life, began working full-time in the music business by the time she was 20, going on the road and completing USO tours.
Though Fabrique always knew she had a gift for singing, "it wasn't something I knew immediately, because my father was one of those people who said, 'A lot of people can sing and dance, why don't you learn to type?'" she recalls with a laugh.
But Fabrique stuck with it. She was a featured soloist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra from 1987 to 1991, touring throughout Europe and the United States. Her Broadway credits include "Dessa Rose," "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk," "Ragtime," "How to Succeed in Business," among others, and she has won numerous awards.
Conceived by Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison, "Ella" began life at TheaterWorks in Hartford, Conn., went through some changes to bulk up the book, and hit the road. The San Diego Repertory performance is the second stop on a year-long tour.
The show features two-dozen songs, including such standards as "How High the Moon," "That Old Black Magic," "Our Love Is Here to Stay" "Cheek to Cheek" and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off." The songs are sung in Fitzgerald's keys, and Fabrique reproduces her scat singing (a vocal technique in which the singer improvises musical lines with nonsense syllables, imitating the other instruments of the band) note for note with the recordings.
"People do know a lot of this material -- they know when you're doing it right, and when you're not. So I try to be as accurate as possible," she says.
Still, Fabrique says she's not simply imitating Fitzgerald. "I try to give the essence, the spirit of the woman, in her singing."
The theater critics seem to agree. Variety's Frank Rizzo said, "Fabrique wondrously echoes rather than mimics Fitzgerald's phenomenal ability to scat-sing, letting the language take playful flight on its own when mere words fail."
Fabrique, who says she was greatly influenced by Fitzgerald as a young girl, was already familiar with the jazz icon's music. But she continues to research other, lesser-known aspects of Fitzgerald's life -- as champion of civil rights, as wife and mother -- to present a richer portrait of the singer.
"I got a lot of facts first hand, from people who worked with her. That gave me a lot of ammunition with which to base the character in," Fabrique said. "It's been a real honor to do this role, to bring her to life ... It's been a very satisfactory endeavor, this journey, and it continues on. It's been glorifying."
Send your thoughts and comments to Jennifer.Chung@sddt.com
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Dates: Through Oct. 19
Show times: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees Sept. 17, 23 and 24
Location: Lyceum Stage, San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown San Diego
More information: (619) 544-1000, www.sandiegorep.com