Bio-Musicals: You Hear Blues, Theaters See Green

Tina Fabrique in Arena's
Tina Fabrique in Arena's "Ella." A bio-musical is "a no-brainer" for a theater, says MetroStage's Carolyn Griffin, "and it makes audiences happy." (By Frank Atura)
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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 27, 2008

Ella's back. So is Alberta Hunter. And Dinah Washington's coming, too.

Blues and jazz greats are taking the stage in Washington this month in biographical musicals that are virtually a cottage industry here. Why? Affinity for late, great jazz-blues legends. Timeless songs. And easy money.

"Ella," starring Tina Fabrique as a scatting, passionate Ella Fitzgerald, is packing them into Arena Stage's new temporary digs in Crystal City. (The company's old building is under major reconstruction for the next 2 1/2 years.) Executive Director Stephen Richard says that by the time the "Ella" run ends next month, it will have been a sellout hit.

Alexandria's MetroStage hopes for that kind of success with "Cookin' at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter," opening this weekend. MetroStage can point to a track record with such material -- "Mahalia," "Bricktop" and others. And has Producing Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin ever lost money on these musicals?

"Never," says Griffin, adding with a laugh that with other shows, "we have lost some money!"

Blues-jazz legends make up the audience-drawing dynamic Paul Douglas Michnewicz is banking on at Theater Alliance. Under recently departed artistic director Jeremy Skidmore's leadership, Theater Alliance accrued critical prestige for its high-minded dramas in the emerging H Street NE neighborhood, but attendance has been spotty.

So this month, interim artistic director Michnewicz announced he was canceling the upcoming "Brothers Karamazov" and replacing it with "A Nite at the Dew Drop Inn," with performances beginning Thursday. The headliner? Dinah Washington, more or less. The show is a cabaret, with a tribute to Washington built in.

"We're definitely marketing that," says Michnewicz, adding that the Dinah-for-Dostoevski swap will halve his production costs and likely give him a bigger draw. "Dew Drop Inn" is not a "life of" musical on Washington like "Dinah Was," which was a hit for Arena eight years ago. "There's no dramaturgy here," Michnewicz explains of this new show, conceived and directed by James Foster Jr. "This is four singers in a juke joint having a good time."

The shows are generally small-scale and technically straightforward; just add solid musicians and serve. "Dew Drop Inn" requires four singers and a pianist, down from the cast of nine (some from out of town, which can mean lodging costs and per diems) that had been slated for Anthony Clarvoe's adaptation of "Brothers Karamazov," which was also going to get a comparatively expensive set.

Griffin says: "It's a no-brainer for the writer and the producer. And it makes audiences happy."

Are bio-musicals and cabarets easier to produce than new plays? Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith contends the tuners can be harder.

"You have to have the talent," says Smith. "Ella" wouldn't be much of a draw if Fabrique didn't deliver the musical goods each night in a demanding part that seldom has her off the stage. So it went for Lynn Sterling two years ago at Arena, playing a late-career Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" (which "Ella" creator Rob Ruggiero has acknowledged as the model for his show).

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