A Match Made in Heaven
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The November Theatre Arenstein Stage. 114 West Broad Street, RVA 23220
Performances: July 9 – September 12, 2021 (Preview July 8)
Ticket Prices: $58. Discounted group rates and rush tickets available.
Info: (804) 282-2620 or www.virginiarep.org
The theme for opening night was “Richmond theater is back!” The occasion was festive, with a classic Rolls Royce convertible parked in front of the November Theatre, a ribbon cutting, and after the show, a ceremonial darkening of the lights in honor of the late Randy Strawderman, who first conceived of this heavenly duo.
The word heavenly is not thrown around lightly, as the premise of this show – more a concert than a play or even a musical – is a reunion in heaven of these two real-life friends and musical collaborators. The result is a nostalgic concert of classics and favorites.
Highlights of the evening (not counting being out at a live theater event) included Desirée Roots’ skillful and confident demonstration of Fitzgerald’s signature scatting technique on Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) and Scott Wichmann’s nuanced and intimately articulated delivery of “One For My Baby and One More For the Road.” There was even a good-spirited vocal battle set off when Wichmann tried to sing Sinatra’s signature “New York, New York.” Roots threw every city or geographically related song she could think of at him before allowing him the pleasure of completing the song: “I Love Paris,” Girl From Ipanema,” “My Kind of Town (Chicago),” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Tale the A Train,” and more.
Roots is no stranger to the music of Ella Fitzgerald, having written and starred in a 2017 tribute, Ella at 100 (since renamed Forever Ella). Roots was both amusing and elegant, portraying “The First Lady of Song” in three elegant gowns – a blinding gold metallic number, a lime green satin ensemble, and an angelic white finale creation adorned with feathers and glitter – each with matching shoes and a color-coordinated handkerchief. Kudos to Sue Griffin and Keith Walker for the costume design. Wichmann was a natural choice for the popular singer nicknamed “Ol’ Blue Eyes.” Between the two of them, Fitzgerald and Sinatra earned 25 Grammy awards (13 for her and 11 for him), and sold somewhere in the vicinity of 200 million albums.
Seeing these two musical icons portrayed by two familiar theater stars would have been a treat at any time, but it was especially heart-warming as the inaugural show of the great re-opening. Too bad Friday night’s performance was marred by a wonky sound system. Both singer’s voices were under-amplified and at times distorted while singing, and much of their light banter was completely lost. (I understand this was not the case during the previous night’s Preview performance, and I hope it doesn’t affect any other shows.)
A live 7-piece orchestra was placed onstage – socially distanced – in a simple and elegant setting of white balloon-like globes that at times reflected different colored lights. The beautifully subtle lighting was designed by BJ Wilkinson. As at any good concert, the musicians got a chance to solo, and even the Overture (Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump) and the Encore (Harold Arlen’s “I’ve Got the World on a Strong”) drew enthusiastic applause. Larri Branch, the Music Director, was also the pianist – who had a single line, a long-drawn out “yep!” in response to questions like, “Are they (meaning us, the audience) real? There was even a bit of audience participation – some planned and some that I think was spontaneous.
Katrinah Carol Lewis’ direction was unobtrusive and organic – except when the two vocalists briefly paced around one another like caged cats. Their initial attempts to hug one another were hilariously rebuffed by an invisible force shield that prevented them from touching – another nod to COVID-19 conventions, yet highly unlikely to happen in heaven.
Written by Richmond-based playwright Bo Wilson and featuring nearly 30 songs, Ella and Her Fella Frank runs about 80 minutes, with no intermission. In accordance with Actors’ Equity Association COVID-19 Guidelines, face masks are required to be worn by all patrons while in the building and no food or drinks are being served at this time.
In honor of Randy Strawderman, who conceived of the original concept of this show, a moving tribute was held after the show, with Debra Wagoner singing from the balcony above the theater’s restored original entrance and a ceremonial darkening of the theater lights. A detailed tribute is available in the digital program – another COVID-19 theater convention that is likely to be around for awhile.
Ella and Her Fella Frank
by Bo Wilson
Based on an original concept by Randy Strawderman
Desirée Roots as Ella Fitzgerald
Scott Wichmann as Frank Sinatra
Direction & Design
Direction: Katrinah Carol Lewis
Scenic Design: Josafath Reynoso
Costume Design: Sue Griffin and Keith Walker
Lighting Design: BJ Wilkinson
Music Direction Larri Branch
Stage Management: Jocelyn A. Thompson
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten
Find these books by Julinda on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing: https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/bookshelf