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Fitzgerald and Sinatra duke it out in Barksdale Theatre's "Ella and Her Fella Frank." But for actor Scott Wichmann, the battle was getting cast. 

Finding Ella's Fella

It was 1953 and Frank Sinatra's career was in trouble. After spending much of the '40s as a teen idol, he had fallen out of public favor, both as a singer and an actor. Then came "From Here to Eternity." Winning an Academy Award for his role as Angelo Maggio revitalized Frank's career and finally earned him the respect he deserved.

Actor Scott Wichmann finds inspiration in Sinatra's renewal story. "The movie producers didn't take him seriously. But he kept sending telegrams to them and signing them 'Maggio,' saying 'Gimme a chance, gimme a chance.'

"It paid off. He got an opportunity to show what he could do. I kind of did that with this role on a much smaller scale."

The role Wichmann is referring to is his portrayal of the Chairman of the Board himself in the Barksdale's upcoming "Ella and her Fella Frank." Conceived and directed by Randy Strawderman, this new musical revue pits Frank Sinatra against Ella Fitzgerald in a singing competition in heaven. Strawderman explains, "Frank is just arriving at the gates of St. Peter. He has to go up against Ella in a sing-off. If he wins, he's in heaven. If he loses, he goes to the other place where the rest of the Rat Pack is."

Strawderman knew early-on who he wanted to play Ella — local jazz chanteuse Rene Croan. "They're in heaven so there is flexibility [in casting]. Ella doesn't have to be heavy, a lot of different people can play her. So the casting is really based on singing ability and Rene is just phenomenal."

Strawderman isn't the only one who thinks so. In the past year, Croan has become a regular attraction at local clubs, even headlining the Richmond Symphony's centennial salute to composer Duke Ellington. "When she sings, Rene has the essence of Ella," Strawderman says.

Finding the right person to play Ol' Blue Eyes has been harder. "Frank had much more of a public life," says Strawderman. "We all know him. So there are certain characteristics that an actor needs to have. He has to be able to carry the breadth of the work Frank did."

The director first auditioned Wichmann in August in North Carolina where the actor was performing at the Lost Colony. Unbeknownst to Strawderman, Wichmann had already developed the perfect audition piece. "I had been messing around with an accompanist and we had created this whole four or five song medley, with me doing this exaggerated impression of Frank, just kidding around," says Wichmann. "So we did that for Randy only we made it serious. ... I guess he was impressed by it."

Strawderman saw Wichmann's potential immediately. "He's a Frank fanatic. He really knows him, and he has the voice naturally. He has a style very much like [Frank's] without being an impersonation."

After the audition, Wichmann immediately began calling Strawderman. "I was really interested in the role. So I just kept leaving messages on his phone every couple of days. Randy had expressed interest in seeing me again in Richmond so I just kept calling him, saying 'When? When? When? I'll be there tomorrow, I'll be there in five minutes if you need me.'"

But the director still had some concerns. "I wanted to keep looking because I didn't know where I was going to place Frank in age." Wichmann is 26. Strawderman finally told the actor, "I've got to level with you, I'm going to New York. I have to see if there's anyone older there who can do it."

Wichmann was crushed, "I had to get away from Richmond for a while." He went to visit his girlfriend in Philadelphia, and he was there when he got the call from Strawderman. After two days in New York, the director realized he had already found the Frank he needed in Richmond.

"Scott is young, but I came back to him because he has the depth," Strawderman says. "Not just as a singer, but as an actor, he can really pull it off." The extended casting process left Wichmann little more than two weeks to get ready for the show, which begins previews Nov. 3. But the actor isn't worried. "I've been studying for this for my whole life, since my grandfather used to drive around in this old Jeep and whistle Sinatra tunes," asserts Wichmann.

Still, even with Wichmann's talent and determination, some of the challenges in bringing Sinatra to life will require a little theater magic to overcome. For instance, the actor will be wearing contacts to turn his brown eyes blue.

Prior to his current role, Wichmann's most notable stage credit in Richmond was his portrayal of the Cowardly Lion in Theatre IV's "The Wizard of Oz" this past spring. He sees the potential for "Ella and Her Fella Frank" to lead to bigger things but, for now, he is focused on the present. "I'm just going to try to do the best I can. Because [Randy] has given me the chance to do this, I want to prove him
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