Where It's Scat

Some words may be nonsense, but the songs are sensational in Ella at the Cleveland Play House.

As Sanjaya and some of the other lyric-challenged contestants on American Idol can attest, the words in songs can be a real obstacle when you're concentrating on squeezing out the right notes. Maybe that's why someone long ago invented scat singing, in which improvised nonsense words are used and nobody knows if you butcher a line. From the dazzling jazz-scat runs of Mel Tormé to the Swingle Singers' vocal riffs on Beethoven, made-up sounds have a long and storied history in the musical canon.

But no one has ever crooned words or scat quite like Ella Fitzgerald, the woman dubbed "the High Priestess of Song" by Tormé himself. And her story is being told in Ella, a touring production on the regional theater circuit that is now lighting up the Bolton Theatre at the Cleveland Play House. While the show's not terribly successful as a penetrating biography of the legendary singer, the performance by Tina Fabrique is exceptional.

As conceived by Rob Ruggiero (who also directs) 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. This format has been used in other staged profiles of singers, such as The Buddy Holly Story, but here it's all about Ella, with only brief appearances by her manager, Norman Granz, played with polite deference by George Roth.

When Granz asks her to add some patter to her performance, Ella scans her memory and shares moments from her early years, such as when she was being sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend or when she danced her "snake hips" routine in front of local bordellos. But everything changed when she signed up to hoof it at Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where, intimidated by a dancing group before her, she decided to sing instead.

Studded with more than 20 tunes from the American songbook, Ella affords Fabrique ample opportunity to show off her vocal ability. While not trying to imitate the soaring Fitzgerald sound (an impossible task to begin with), Fabrique harnesses the essence of Ella. Like Miss Fitz, Fabrique's phrasing explores the hidden potential of each melody, searching for small nuggets as though she were panning for gold.

And she finds treasures aplenty. Her solos on "Lullaby of Birdland" and "S'Wonderful" are crystalline in their clarity. Even though Fabrique has a sharper edge to her voice, she imbues each song with Ella-like improvisation. And her duets with Satchmo, played and sung by Brian Sledge, are wonderfully playful.

The book by Jeffrey Hatcher doesn't soft-pedal shy Ella's downside, such as her inability to devote herself to relationships. She and her second husband, famed bass player Ray Brown, adopted her half-sister's baby boy, but she always opted for singing tours over child-rearing. This hurtful part of her life is supposedly resolved in an "impromptu" moment in the Nice 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.