The show is conceived and directed by Maurice Hines — it premiered in 2004 at New Jersey’s Crossroads Theatre, starring Payne — and it’s practically a concert, beginning with a 1960s gig and letting Fitzgerald flash back over the course of her life and career. The song list glides through everything from “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” to selections from the “Songbook” albums Fitzgerald recorded celebrating great composers such as Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, and Rodgers and Hart.
MetroStage is an intimate 140-seat theater with a fairly small stage, and Hines doesn’t clutter it up. The back is reserved for pianist/music director William Knowles and four more musicians: drummer Greg Holloway, saxophonist Grant Langford, trumpeter Doug Pierce and bass player Yusef Chisholm. The front is Payne’s, except when she wanders back and swaps hot phrases with the band.
Luckily, that happens a lot. Payne’s scatting absolutely zips in “How High the Moon,” and “Mack the Knife” becomes a joyful riot of upbeat swoops and beep-beep-a-dos. The poignant, phrase-stretching moments work, too, but the most infectious bits swing, as Payne sings with the jubilance of a kid skipping down the sidewalk.
Payne’s not alone: Wynonna Smith, Roz White and Tom Wiggin play various figures in Fitzgerald’s life. But Lee Summers’s book gives the supporting players only brief wooden lines summarizing landmarks, crises and relationships (and for the record, Payne’s acting doesn’t have nearly the verve of her singing). As drama, it’s like reading Wikipedia.
That’s part of why this genre doesn’t always get much respect — writing that’s often slapdash, plus a general exploitation of great careers and difficult lives of (largely black) 20th-century entertainers. It’s a staple of the programming at MetroStage and a feature at Arena Stage, where Hines just performed his own life in song and where a different Fitzgerald bio-concert was produced a couple of years ago.
The upside is that a venue like MetroStage re-creates a platform for a brand of performance that’s hard to find anymore. It’s nightclub-sized and off-Broadway in spirit, and the music is typically well taken care of: Payne hopping easily up and down the scales is utterly worth hearing. And in a raw bottom line, the audience plainly doesn’t come for supple writing. For them, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
That’s what’s on offer in something like “Ella: First Lady of Song,” and apparently a reliable clientele shows up. No reason they shouldn’t.
Ella: First Lady of Song
Book by Lee Summers. Conceived and directed by Maurice Hines. Set design, Carl Gudenius; costumes, Scotty Sherman; lights, Alexander Keen; sound design, Robert Garner. About two hours. Tickets $55-$60. Through March 16 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Call 703-548-9044 or visit www.metrostage.org.