If somebody says that they're putting together a one-woman show about Ella Fitzgerald, would anybody think: "I do hope the dramaturgy is first-rate"? Of course not. Anybody with a shred of sense is saying: "That actress playing Ella better know how to sing!"
And it is my great pleasure to tell you that Tina Fabrique sings the living daylights out of the role in the Pittsburgh Public Theatre's production of Ella.
The story, conceived by Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison and turned into a script by Jeffrey Hatcher, places us at a Fitzgerald concert in Nice, France, in 1966. The first act is Ella rehearsing and reminiscing, and the second is the concert itself.
To get the bad stuff out of the way: Ruggiero (who also directs), Garrison and Hatcher must realize that no one's coming to this show for the script. What they've come up with is so thin in terms of plot, character and mood you could use it as a clarinet reed.
I didn't mind that so much as I did the actual errors ... I mean, if you're going to include only the barest info, you should be accurate, right? Take Fitzgerald's scat singing (with which this show is obsessed). While it's certainly a trademark, it's almost insignificant compared to her landmark, monumental, jaw-dropping contribution to music, the Song Books Series (an eight-year, 245-track celebration of American songs). But that project is barely referenced ... and then incorrectly.
Meanwhile, Fitzgerald did actually record "Over the Rainbow," so I'm not sure why they've made her not singing it one of the show's few moments of conflict.
But I sweep all of those caveats off the table happily to make room for Fabrique's gorgeous performance. While she never tries to imitate Ella, she allows what informed Ella's singing to inform her own: crystal-clear diction, sublime phrasing, purity of tone and a musical intelligence to knock your socks off.
She also gets mesmerizing support from an outstanding band (George Caldwell, Ron Haynes, Rodney Harper, Clifton Kellem and Harold Dixon), and performs on what may be the most beautiful set I've ever seen (designed by Michael Schweikardt and lit by John Lasiter). Fabrique, in her own way, is as astonishing a singer as Ella Fitzgerald ... and I can't think of higher praise.
Ella continues through Nov. 1. Pittsburgh Public Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org