In the Barksdale's battle between two musical icons, the audience is the ultimate winner.
"Ella and her Fella" Mostly Stellar
On the night I saw "Ella and Her Fella Frank," it was deep into the second act when alert actor Scott Wichmann spied a woman dozing about three rows back from the stage. With a devilish grin, he turned to stage-mate Rene Croan and told her, "We've got to wake that chick up!" The dynamic singing duo launched into a blistering version of "The Lady Is a Tramp" that could have roused the dead and made them dance.
That moment exemplifies everything that is excellent and at least one thing that still needs work in the Barksdale's new musical revue. Billed as a "Concert Made in Heaven," the show is built around a song contest between Frank Sinatra (Wichmann), newly arrived at the Gates of Saint Peter, and the reigning queen of Heaven's Jazz Club, Ella Fitzgerald (Croan). It's not so much a plot as an excuse to bring two knock-out performers together to sing a selection of the swingingest songs of the century.
It's almost worth the price of admission just to hear Croan raise her voice in service of these boss tunes. She scats up a storm in "It Don't Mean a Thing, If It Ain't Got That Swing," and paves a road of pure sonic gold in "Someone To Watch Over Me." Any resistance to her charms will be blown to bits by her rollicking tribute to "Hard Hearted Hannah." On stage, Croan is irresistibly appealing; you love her even as Ella coldly reduces Frank to rubble in their vocal battle.
Wichmann makes a young and somewhat smallish Sinatra but he's got a voice like a million bucks and, more importantly, a sharp and sassy stage presence. He can belt out the big songs illustrated by his fearless delivery of "New York, New York." But his true skill shows in his mastery of Sinatra's lower range, notably in the poised, seductive delivery of "It's All Right With Me."
Backing up these masters is a tremendous trio led by musical director Bob Hallahan on piano. Jamail Nance on drums adds a zesty beat to make the Latin sound of "'Ol Devil Moon" really hop. A dancing troupe of four angels adds some visual flair to the show, though they are little more than eye candy most of the time.
Playwright-director Randy Strawderman has stretched the thin concept of the show to include some clever song connections; a medley of city anthems is a particular stand-out. But after a rousing beginning to the second act, the dramatic bottom falls out. Croan's overlong "Mr. Paganinni" backed-up against "Ol' Man River" nearly put me to sleep as well.
The show regains its footing with an emotional rendition of "My Way," a now-overused classic that Wichmann is able to make fresh and forceful again. The show's relatively unsatisfying ending exposes the danger of setting up a contest you don't really want either person to win. Even so, "Ella and Her Fella Frank" is a winner, a unique opportunity to experience a little bit of heaven right here on
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