PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
February 24, 2004

A Full-Length for the First Lady

by Jim Newsom

There’s a star embedded in the Granby Street sidewalk outside the entrance to the Roper Center for the Performing Arts wherein the name “Ella Fitzgerald” is enshrined. Known around the world as “the first lady of song,” Ella started life in Newport News in 1917, and though she lived in the area less than two years, Hampton Roads has been proud to claim her as one of its most noted natives for a long, long time.

Two years ago, the city of Norfolk launched its Legends of Music Walk of Fame by naming her among its first class of inductees. At the awards ceremony in September, 2002, a local singer named Norma Bass filled in for the late Ms. Fitzgerald. When the curtain opened on Ms. Bass, the audience gasped. She looked just like Ella. After she sang a couple of Ella’s signature tunes, the packed house at the Roper gave her a rousing ovation. She had the look, she had the sound. Norma Bass was Ella Fitzgerald.

In fact, she’s been portraying the legendary songstress for the last three summers at the Virginia Beach oceanfront, as part of Beachevents’ outdoor entertainment series along Atlantic Avenue. Producer/writer/director Gary Spell decided he should turn her half-hour 13th Street Stage show into a full-length musical, with hopes of taking it all the way to Broadway. The result will be on display this week at the 600-seat Regent University Theatre when Ella---The Life and Music of Ella Fitzgerald has its world premiere.

And Norma Bass has the lead. A singer who wasn’t particularly familiar with Ella before she tried out for the part at the Beach, Bass felt an immediate affinity with her. Possessing the same multi-octave range and precision intonation, she found the music to be a natural fit. Once she began to let herself go into the character, she found she was comfortably at home with the scatting improvisation and passionate vocalizations that connected Ella with the world. Three years on, she’s got it down and has made it her own.

The new play is full of music, but intersperses vignettes from Ella’s life story among the songs. The music was arranged by Steve Haines, the director of the Miles Davis Program in Jazz Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Spell, who’s honed his chops producing and directing musicals at the Founders Inn, has high hopes and big ambitions for this show. But for local theatre goers and jazz lovers, just the opportunity to hear Norma Bass inhabit Ella Fitzgerald’s music should be enough.

“Ella---The Life and Music of Ella Fitzgerald” will be presented at the Regent University Theatre on Thursday and Friday nights at 8:00 pm. There will be two shows Saturday, at 3:00 and 8:00 pm, and Sunday’s performances are at 2:00 and 7:00 pm. Tickets are $15.00 for children 12 and under, $17.50 for senior citizens, students and active military, and $20.00 for everyone else, and are available at the theatre’s box office, or online at www.tix.com.

copyright © 2004 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.