By Sandi Durell
We are each inspired by others who allow us to dream. Ella was that great inspiration to Andrea Frierson – book writer and performer in Me and Ella (two time Helen Hayes Award nominee, with numerous Broadway credits) that is currently in development at the York Theatre Company. Considering the limited rehearsal time to mount this initial production, it’s clear that Ms. Frierson is emotionally invested in the First Lady of Song in this, Ms. Fitzgerald’s, centennial year.
Andrea grew up listening to and loving the sounds of Ella and, luckily, part of an entertainment family where Mom and Dad, both professional singers, understood the impact of music on the soul.
Ms. Fierson is not imitating but paying tribute to the great lady as she intertwines her own life in music and theater, giving insightful information about Ella, from her hard years growing up through her big break at the Apollo landing a gig with the famous Chick Webb orchestra and taking over that band when he died, launching Ella’s historical career.
It’s a play-by-play story of the culture of the 50s, 60s, 70s that weaves Ella’s influence over Ms. Frierson as we also get to know more about this performer who possesses a vocal timbre and range that easily takes us on a musical journey and envelops the audience. Both Ella and Andrea have impeccable diction. There is also the ease and love with which Ms. Frierson performs that makes her immediately . . . likeable!
With some projections to round out the storyline (about both Ella and Andrea), lives come into focus in more realistic circumstances. We get to know Ella, her troubled marriages, divorces, stories of racism, her meteoric rise to fame and hear some of the finest of the songs of the First Lady of Song – from animated “A Tisket, A Tasket” thru BeBop with Dizzy Gillespie in the new era of jazz showing off a stream of scat. Tunes also include a tender “I’m Old Fashioned,” “How High the Moon,” “Get Out of Town” “Close to You,” “Lucky to Be Me” . . .
The entire 80 minutes are highlighted by the creativity and music direction of Ron Abel, responsible for the most unique arrangements of these great American songbook treasures, with Rex Benincasa on percussion and Richie Goods on bass.
The collaboration is strong between directors Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel, Ms. Frierson and Mr. Abel. However, there needs to be better definition going forward as the lives of Ella and Andrea unfold side by side, lest this be thought of as an embellished cabaret show rather than a theater piece.
No one knows where the development of Me and Ella will land as it’s a work in progress, growing and morphing. But its got style and substance and a talented group of eager creatives. And, more than that, it’s got the talented Andrea Frierson!
Me and Ella – a limited engagement of 11 performances that run thru July 23. The runtime is 80 minutes. York Theatre Co at St. Peters, East 54 St. & Lexington Ave. 212 935-5820 www.YorkTheatre.org
(additional opening nite photos: Maryann Lopinto)