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A tale of ‘Ella,’ enthusiasm — and two extensions

I have an out-of-town friend who is nuts about Ella Fitzgerald. He wasn’t aware that “Ella,” the musical bio, was playing at the Guthrie when he arrived at our house for a visit last weekend. And I won’t be surprised if he drops into town again before the show closes on Sept. 20.

Of all the elements that a theater critic needs, one of the essential ones is enthusiasm. The jaded reviewer is a liability to art, to journalism and to himself — or herself.

But sitting next to Gary Moore during a crowded Saturday matinee of “Ella” made me think about curbing enthusiasm. He had plenty to spare. Before the show started, Gary ran through the song list in the program like a priest reciting catechism. Knew it all.

A part-time bartender, Gary assembles music montages for the nights when a disc jockey isn’t working.

“I’ve got a lot of Ella in my programs,” he said. “Some of the sad stuff makes my eyes well up, even while I’m working.”

Indeed. He was misty-eyed as Tina Fabrique, who has been doing extraordinary work eight times a week since July, sang a heartfelt “I’ll Never Be the Same” — and, especially, during the show’s breakdown number, “Something to Live For.” The show is mostly upbeat, however, and I kept noticing vibrations in the seat next to me.

“What a singer!” Moore exclaimed several times as we sat in a bar after the show (where he patiently explained to the bartender about ways to make a respectable brandy Alexander without ice cream).

Yes, he averred, Tina Fabrique isn’t Ella Fitzgerald. She couldn’t be and shouldn’t be. But the phrasing of her songs were wonderfully reminiscent, both a tribute and a reminder that great musicians create descendants. And the little touches, he went on — like the way she held her handkerchief and waved it as she sang. “I kept hearing and seeing bits of Ella,” he said.

I started to explain my main problem with the show’s book — namely that the first-act device of having Ella tell her life story during a rehearsal is awkward. There’s nothing wrong with speaking directly to the audience, I noted, but you need to show as well as tell. The second act, which is a replication of a performance, works a lot better …

Well, I got that far before I noticed Gary gazing at me sympathetically. I realized what he was thinking: Poor guy — two dozen songs given great performances isn’t good enough for him.

Well, it is a great show and there’s small wonder why the Guthrie has extended it — twice. To see a clip and check on the remaining performances, go here.

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