Ella -- As the lyric-challenged contestants on American Idol can attest, the words in songs can be a real obstacle. Maybe that's why someone invented scat singing, in which improvised nonsense words are used and nobody knows if you butcher a line. But no one has ever crooned scat quite like Ella Fitzgerald, whose story is being told in the touring production Ella, now playing the Bolton Theatre at the Cleveland Play House. As conceived by director Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison, Ella is wrapped around a 1966 performance in Nice, France, with the first act devoted to a chronology of the singer's career and the second to the concert performance itself. With only brief interruptions by her manager, Norman Granz (a polite George Roth), Ella scans her memory and shares moments from her early years. Although the show's not terribly successful as a biography, the performance by Tina Fabrique is exceptional. Ella's more than 20 tunes afford Fabrique ample opportunity to show off her vocal ability, and while she doesn't try to imitate the soaring Fitzgerald sound, she harnesses the essence of Ella. The book by Jeffrey Hatcher doesn't soft-pedal Ella's downside, such as her inability to devote herself to relationships and how she always opted for singing tours over child-rearing. This hurtful part of Ella's life is supposedly resolved in an "impromptu" moment in concert, but it's not very convincing. That said, this show is all about the music. And on that score, Tina Fabrique "Fitz" just fine. Through April 22 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-795-7000. -- Christine Howey
Hay Fever -- This is the first of Noel Coward's oh-so-droll drawing-room larks set in the 1920s English countryside. The quartet of characters at the heart of the work consists of the Blisses: ex-actress diva Judith, her self-absorbed novelist hubby David, and their two grown children, Simon and Sorel, who are each eccentric in their own ways. Using a basic, sitcom-deep setup -- each of the Blisses has invited an opposite-sex guest to their manor for the weekend -- Coward uses lilting dialogue and bon mots to deliver the fun. Although proceedings begin disappointingly, with Sara M. Bruner and Jeffrey C. Hawkins (as Sorel and Simon, respectively) vocally overprojecting their lines, things look up when Kathleen Pirkl Tague enters as the irrepressible Judith, easily commanding the stage while putting down her progeny. Soon, the onslaught of guests begins: Simon invites conniving Myra Arundel (Laura Perrotta), who engages with horny David (Aled Davies), while shy chorine Jackie Coryton (Laura Welsh) is being observed by David for a book he's writing. Meanwhile, Judith summons pugilist Sandy Tyrell (Lynn Robert Berg), and Sorel invites diplomat Richard Greatham. Coward establishes all these two-dimensional guests so they can be used as props for Bliss family amusements, which include quickly switched pairings and flash romances. Finding humor in these mildly outrageous happenstances is fairly easy, but managing to make it all work without the support of interesting characters makes Hay Fever a daunting theatrical undertaking. This uneven production, directed by Charles Fee, attests to the difficulty. Still, there are many chuckles to be had as the absurd confrontations build upon one another. And thanks to Tague, the manic proceedings eventually come to a fitting resolution. Through April 21, presented by the Great Lakes Theater Festival at the Ohio Theatre, 1519 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000. -- Howey
The Tempest -- The quixotic nature of authority is just one of the issues raised in William Shakespeare's The Tempest. Considered a masterpiece, it also meditates on justice, utopia, and what a man will do for a slug of vino. The play opens with a ship being battered in a storm conjured by Prospero (a suitably regal Aled Davies), a former duke and a magician, who had his government stolen from him years before by brother Antonio, currently tossing his cookies on board with fellow passenger King Alfonso. With the help of spirit-gofer Ariel (an endearingly goofy Sara M. Bruner), Prospero aims to destroy the ship so that his enemies -- who set him and his baby daughter adrift years ago to be shipwrecked on a small island -- will wash ashore and be under his control. One of Prospero's schemes is that daughter Miranda (Laura Welsh, hyperventilating prettily) will fall in love with the king's son, Ferdinand (a drop-dead handsome David Gregory). Comedy is provided by two more survivors: dim-witted Trinculo (Jeffrey C. Hawkins) and a blotto Stephano (M.A. Taylor), who, it seems, has stumbled upon a few goatskins of wine from the wrecked ship and winds up sharing them with the monster Caliban (a richly entertaining Lynn Robert Berg), who ruled the island until Prospero showed up. Director Andrew May finds much of the humor in the script, but quieter moments sometimes aren't shaped as fully. While not a Tempest for the ages, the Great Lakes production manages to do justice to the enduring themes that make the play one of the most treasured in the Shakespeare portfolio. Through April 20, presented by the Great Lakes Theater Festival at the Ohio Theatre, 1519 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000. -- Howey
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