A star-studded evening bursting with jazz, scat, bebop and blues took place inside MetroStage for the opening night performance of legendary actor, singer and choreographer Maurice Hines’ latest musical, “Ella: First Lady of Song.”

Starring the talented actress and singer Freda Payne as Ella Fitzgerald, Hines’ musical highlights the pivotal moments in Fitzgerald’s life that transformed her into a world-renowned legend.

The musical gives insight into Fitzgerald’s private and often publicized love life, her personal struggles as an African-American singer in a segregated nation, and her intimate battles with family, motherhood, and stardom. Beginning with her early years as an amateur performing at Apollo Stage, the story follows her to her grand performance alongside Duke Ellington, Ray Brown, and Joe Pass at the Côte d’Azur in the south of France.

“Freda Payne was my first choice for this role,” Hines told the AFRO. “I wouldn’t have chosen anyone else. Ella and Freda, they are so great, so lovely and purely authentic. You just don’t see that kind of authenticity anymore.”

Payne’s sharp and sultry vocals soared throughout the theatre, captivating audiences with songs such as “Sing Me a Swing Song,” “A Tisket-A-Tasket,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” The Lady is a Tramp,” and “Mackie’s Back in Town.” Payne’s ability to scat, bebop, and sing in the same key as Fitzgerald brought the songs to life, much to the enjoyment of the audience, who clapped, sang, and danced in their seats to the music.

“Ella Fitzgerald affected me a lot,” Payne said. “She got me to appreciate jazz, jazz singers, and good singers, like Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter and Dinah Washington.”

Payne urged aspiring singers and performers, to “listen to the songs of the past… I had the advantage of growing up and being around these iconic ladies and seeing them as role models. The key is to listen to the songs of the past.”

Payne was accompanied by a five-member jazz band featuring the talents of William Knowles on piano, Greg Holloway on drums, Grant Langford on sax, Doug Pierce on trumpet, and Yusef Chisholm on bass. In addition to giving a phenomenal performance, the musicians also doubled as Chick Webb and his Orchestra, each portraying members of Fitzgerald’s longtime band.

Joined on stage by a purely dynamic cast, the musical features the rich and soulful vocals of actress/singer Roz White as Fitzgerald’s cousin, assistant, and traveling companion Georgiana; the soft and sensuous voice of Wynonna Smith, who gave a lively and comedic performance as a young Fitzgerald, and later on played the part of Fitzgerald’s sister Frances; and a wonderfully energetic performance by Tom Wiggin as Fitzgerald’s longtime friend and manager, Norman Granz, who was determined to produce a show in a club that permitted Black audiences.

Together, Hines and MetroStage’s producing artistic director, Carolyn Griffin, put on a phenomenal show which brought out enthusiastic patrons and celebrity support: Dick Gregory and his daughter, Ayanna, Debbie Morgan of “Eve’s Bayou,” and brothers John and Leo Manzari, stars of Hines’ hit production, “Tappin’ Thru Life.”


Ariel Medley

AFRO Staff Writers