By Jordan Wright (Photo/Chris Banks)
Maurice Hines wants to entertain you.
The much-lauded performer wants to do it in the same way he’s been entertaining audiences for decades — from Broadway to Vegas and most recently at D.C.’s Arena Stage, where his show “Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life” recently opened to rave reviews.
Hines is back in town directing “Ella, First Lady of Song,” a show he conceived and choreographed.
The musical-on-steroids spans Ella Fitzgerald’s hard life and good times. Through her halcyon days on the French Riviera and her famed philharmonic concerts, the story traces her childhood years singing on the streets of Harlem and her success at an amateur night contest at the Apollo Theater, the historic venue that launched many a performer’s career.
As you might expect to properly express the eight-decade career of this greatest of American jazz singers, there’s a lot of material — musical and personal — to draw from and a lot to gloss over. Hines spends less time on Ella’s struggles and insecurities than on the music. The show is more like a concert than a biography.
And it’s appropriate, since it’s been said Ella didn’t dwell on her disappointments.
Hines has cast iconic pop singer Freda Payne to play the diva. The successful recording artist, who has 18 albums and a pair of gold records under her belt, proves an excellent choice to channel Ella’s voice and gestures, trading eights and fours with the band like a hot knife through butter.
Tom Wiggin plays Ella’s agent, Norman Granz, a white man who fought for her career through years of prejudice toward black performers trying to play on white stages.
“I’m in the long-shot business,” Granz explains while pushing to book Ella into whites-only venues.
Wynonna Smith does double duty as young Ella and Ella’s sister Frances. Rounding out the four-member cast is Helen Hayes Award-winning actress Roz White, who plays Ella’s cousin and longtime personal assistant, Georgiana. Together, their first-rate voices and moving portrayals make up this strong supporting cast.
William Knowles conducts the sizzling-hot five-piece band on piano, sax, trumpet, bass and drums, as Payne hits the heights with a vocal range that sends chills up your spine. Covering 27 songs — from Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” to George and Ira Gershwin’s “Oh, Lady Be Good!” — the music spans 40 years of the best in swing, bebop, scat and jazz.