By James V. Ruocco
Ella Fitzgerald - the first lady of song - is given the all-star treatment in Westport Country Playhouse's jazzy concert tribute "First Lady of Song Cherise Coaches Sings Ella Fitzgerald," a fond, tuneful and lively trip down memory lane that celebrates the life and times of one of the music industry's greatest recording artists with remembrances, songs and conversations from her illustrious half-century career.
An "Artists Lounge Live" production, documented with flair, liberation and triumph, this two-hour concert event, which includes a fifteen-minute intermission, replays and reinvents moments from Fitzgerald's "Great American Songbook" repertoire with clear, careful jazz precision, a probing, nostalgic thoughtfulness and time-honored music that lovingly spills its guts with jazz club, supper club influence and jubilation.
Structured as much by theme, appreciation, dedication and arrangement, this production gets off to an incredible jazzy start (how could it not?) that grows in stature from song to song and moment to moment before its glorious, memorable, exciting big finish.
It also fits perfectly into the intimate, welcoming and cozy environs of the Westport Country Playhouse with smiles, tears and applause deftly etched in from patrons, newcomers, regulars and music lovers united as one to hear songs they've all heard before and want to hear again and again.
Magical, oh yes.
And, so much more.
Make no mistake about it: "First Lady of Song Cherise Coaches Sings Ella Fitzgerald" is in a class by itself.
It unfolds with brooding melancholy and bristle.
It is commanding and heavenly.
It tilts and spins.
Its breezy jazz eruption channels the lady herself.
Its balance of color, detail and complexity heightens its charm, its vibrance and its signifying groove, immediacy and trigger.
And then, there is the star herself.
Creating a strong, natural and charismatic bond between singer and audience, Chicago-born actress and entertainer Cherise Coaches takes center stage in "First Lady of Song" and creates a unique sound and vibe of boom, high energy, impact and passion.
She is sensational.
But first, let's backtrack.
On Broadway, Coaches appeared in the hit musical "Waitress" and later, was featured in the National Touring edition of "Disenchanted: The Musical."
Her other credits include Dionne in "Hair," Charlene in "Dreamgirls" and Young Patti in "A New Attitude: In Tribute to Patti LaBelle."
With "Artists Lounge Live," Coaches appeared as a featured vocalist in "Aretha Franklin: Queen of Soul," "Higher and Higher with Chester Gregory" and "Signed, Sealed Delivered: John-Mark McGaha Sings Stevie Wonder."
With "First Lady of Song," Coaches shows how passionate she is about the music of Ella Fitzgerald, the songs she chooses to sing in concert, how and why each piece holds a special place in her heart and more importantly, the impact that comes from right after hearing and performing it.
Vocally, she dazzles and shines with a voice and range that showcases her talents in full display, offset by skill, uplift, swing and imagination.
Here, Fitzgerald's song hits - there are many - are remembered with a certain oomph and fondness that makes the occasion in Westport even more special.
They include: "I Got Rhythm," "Misty," "Mack the Knife," "Night and Day," "Summertime," "The Lady is a Tramp," "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," "A -Tisket, A-Tasket," "My Funny Valentine" and "Too Dark Hot," among others.
Backed by a confident, committed onstage band that includes William Kurk (musical director, piano), Jay Flat (flute/saxophone), Ryan Bennett (drums) and Runere Brooks (upright bass), Coaches steps into the limelight putting her own personal spin on the music of Fitzgerald rather than imitate or copycat the legendary singer's special voice and sound. It's a creative choice that the singer spins with warmth, bewitchment, purity, timelessness and Harlem Savoy Ballroom sultriness. It's all velvety smooth and navigated. Or belted and crooned with powerhouse sensation and bustle.
The singer also engages in scatting, a vocal improvisation that Fitzgerald was famous for, improvising melodies, sounds and rhythms, comprised of nonsense syllables, wordless vocables, humor, quick tongue, various compressions or no words at all. It's a showstopping feat and one of the many, many highlights of this exhilarating production.
Written and directed by Angela Ingersoll, "First Lady of Song" also comes packaged with unique stories, tidbits and facts that recall Fitzgerald's life story from her 1917 birth in Newport News, Virginia to her death at the age of 79 from a stroke in 1996.
With Coaches as narrator, a part she claims with tremendous inspiration and spirit, the audience is privy to lots of valuable documentation that includes Fitzgerald's 1934 "Amateur Night" contest win at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater, her years of mentoring with bandleader Chick Webb, her first hit single at age 19, her booking at L.A. hotspot Macambo via superfan Marilyn Monroe and the creation of Verve Records in 1955 for the singer herself.