‘Bigger than Beyoncé’: Signature Theatre hosts Ella Fitzgerald cabaret

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Ella Fitzgerald cabaret at Signature Theatre (Part 1)

Signature Theatre is best known for its first-rate musical productions in Shirlingon, Virginia, but they also sprinkle in some dynamite cabaret tributes to legendary musicians.

Next week, Signature hosts “First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald” from Jan. 31 to Feb. 5.

“It’s a cabaret celebrating Ella Fitzgerald’s music,” Music Director Mark G. Meadows told WTOP. “She was the Beyoncé of her day or even bigger than Beyoncé is now. She’s broken so many barriers all around the world and it’s time that we just celebrate this amazing Black woman’s music. I can’t wait for you all to hear these arrangements.”

It’s a full-circle moment considering that Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1917, before her family moved to Yonkers, New York. As a teenager, she sang on the streets of Harlem before making her debut at the Apollo Theater on Nov. 21, 1934.

“She sang with Louis [Armstrong] and collaborated with so many amazing artists,” Meadows said. “She toured around the world as a Black woman in Berlin when nobody who was ‘colored’ wanted to be in Germany. She sang ‘Mack the Knife’ to an audience that loved that song. She was fearless and went around the world being her childlike self.”

Local vocalists Rochelle Rice and Ayo will perform classics like “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Mack the Knife,” “Blue Skies,” “I’m Somebody Nobody Loves,” “The Very Thought of You” and “You Belong to Me.”

“They scat their faces off on classics like ‘Blue Skies,'” Meadows said. “You’ll hear ‘Air Mail Special,’ which is Ella’s most acrobatic display of virtuosity where she scats. … Her scat solos were improvising, but they were also melodies. … Everything she sings is in pitch, she doesn’t sing a thing out of tune. It’s easy, free, childlike, fun, it’s got emotion.”

In total, she racked up 14 Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Arts, the NAACP’s inaugural President’s Award, and the White House Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“If you heard her, you fell in love with her immediately,” Meadows said. “Everyone from our grandparents’ generation to our parents’ generation to our generation, you hear that music and it’s comforting, it’s playful, it’s incredible.”

Find more information here.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Ella Fitzgerald cabaret at Signature Theatre (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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