How many pop singers can you name whose legacy includes having earned more than one nickname?
The immortal Ella Fitzgerald had three. “Queen of Jazz” referred to the genre by which she was best known. “First Lady of Song” came later, after Ella had transcended singing only jazz. “Lady Ella” marked her arrival into the pantheon of all-time greats.
The second is the most all-encompassing and best describes the broadest possible playlist, and that wide range of material is well in evidence in “First Lady of Song: Alexis J. Roston sings Ella Fitzgerald.”
Created, produced and performed by the Chicago-based Artists Lounge Live, the show is enjoying a limited engagement (just under three weeks) at Laguna Playhouse.
While not extensive, the playlist – 16 numbers plus an encore – satisfies in sampling Fitzgerald’s repertoire by generously representing staple Great American Songbook composers Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, George Gershwin and more.
In the process, it delivers a chance to experience what it might have been like to see and hear Fitzgerald in person performing some of her biggest hits.
Ella honed and perfected and became known and acclaimed for her scat singing, and Roston expertly showcases her ability to scat in the up-tempo opening numbers “I’ve Got Rhythm” and “Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”
Roston’s talent for phrasing is seen to great effect in the medium-tempo performance of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” given comical pizazz by her mimicry of Satchmo’s distinctive singing style.
Noting that she has portrayed Billie Holiday in multiple productions of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” Roston tells us that she loves “not just jazz – I like good music no matter what it is.” She playfully backs this up by doing a few bars of classical music, then Count Basie, then Country.
As the compact first half of the show unfolds, the ensemble becomes more relaxed and loose, getting into the flow of the time-tested material – and if you find yourself thinking “nightclub,” you’re not alone, as the (uncredited) scenic design’s starry black sky and five chandeliers contribute to that ambiance.
In “End of the Rainbow,” Angela Ingersoll gave us a backstage look at music legend Judy Garland, and her “First Lady of Song” script skillfully interweaves the story of Fitzgerald’s life into the flow of each song’s performance.
Thankfully, the script also avoids drowning us in facts, providing more of a Cliff Notes version of Ella’s biography, relating such fascinating factoids as Fitzgerald’s tumultuous pre-star years causing Fitzgerald to say she was “grateful she knew hardship so she could appreciate success.”
As the show’s music director, William Kurk fulfills the function of director, conducting fellow musicians Alex Beltran (sax and flute), Joshua Ramos (upright bass) and Ryan Bennett (percussion) while playing piano onstage. While all four are superb, Beltran’s incredible woodwind playing and Kurk’s pianistics deserve kudos.
“First Lady” both shows and tells us how Fitzgerald’s “definitive” performances of the Songbook’s composing and lyric-writing superstars transformed her from the relatively narrow confines of jazz to an all-around pop singer.
As we learn from the show, Ella was “painfully shy,” and tempestuous romances led her to dive into her work all the more. Roston tells us “The love of her life was the music. It kept her sane.”
Whatever motivated her, Fitzgerald was a rare combination of tons of talent and very little ego who only wished to share her talents with anyone on the same wavelength.
Throughout the evening, star vocalist Roston is personable and appealing. Her vocals are expressive and her stage presence alluring, as exemplified by her sultry, sizzling, sassy handling of “Summertime.” “Night and Day” is yet another highlight, the script calling it “the number where Dionne and Ella meet.”
Another gem is the Duke Ellington standard “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” The singer playfully delivers wonderful vocals in a smoothly flowing style, after which the tempo quickens and Roston cuts loose for a big finish.
Singer Roston can turn on an emotional dime, from a gently expressive “Misty” to a bubbly version of Cole Porter’s “It’s De-Lovely” where Kurk’s solid, melodious piano is underpinning for Roston’s dynamic vocal work “My Funny Valentine” brings more poignancy through Roston’s wistful inflections.
The band shines throughout, and for the Act Two opener it’s showcased to fine effect in an instrumental arrangement of “How High the Moon” that’s highlighted by Ramos’ entertaining bass work. The second half also brings two of the most potent numbers: the wonderfully stormy “Cry Me a River” and a gently soulful rendition of “Mood Indigo” with Roston caressing the lyrics.
As the show winds down, “Mack the Knife” acts as a sunny celebratory recognition of the total career success Fitzgerald enjoyed late in life, and “Dream a Little Dream of Me” is a whisper-soft farewell to the great lady.
The show closes with a triumphant take on the world-famous “The Lady is a Tramp.” With seductive sax work by Beltran, the number is designed to send audiences home with a smile. In fact, “First Lady of Song” is the kind of musical theater solo show that makes you want to stand up and cheer.
Moulton Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach. March 2-20. Running time (includes intermission): 1 hour, 35 minutes. Tickets: $55 to $85. Ticket purchase/information: 949-497-2787, lagunaplayhouse.org