Louis-and-Ella! Ascend at the Cutting Room
by Marilyn Lester
Billed as a “jazzical,” Louis-and-Ella!, a celebration of show biz icons Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, has much to offer in the way of swinging music and legendary song. Trent Armand Kendall, who conceived and wrote the piece about the extraordinary lives and careers of these two superstars, makes a convincing Armstrong, while Natasha Yvette Williams as Fitzgerald excels with a spectacular voice—one that Ella herself might appreciate very highly. Williams’ renditions of Billy Strayhorn’s “Something to Live For,” for instance, and the Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer standard, “Skylark,” were simply sublimely transportive. In portraying the duo, who reigned supreme in the world of popular music for most of the 20th century, Kendall and Williams enthusiastically sing their way through more than 25 songs from gospel to standards to jazz with a crowd-pleasing gusto. There’s lots of appeal here, as Louis and Ella sing, banter, tease and sometimes lock horns through their musical journey.
The framework for Louis-and-Ella! is the conceit that the pair have been roaming in a dark limbo since their passing (1971 for Armstrong and 1996 for Fitzgerald), and it’s the job of two angels (also played by Kendall and Williams) to help them cross over to Heaven. In their wanderings it seems that Louis has lost his ability to play the trumpet and Ella has lost her will to sing. The concept is a little dubious (it’s best not to question, and to just go with it), and the book is highly expository, but it’s a fine vehicle, especially for Kendall. The narrative may have shortfalls, but the payoff is in the music. Plus, the onstage band is a top-notch hot five, playing up a storm throughout. Louis-and-Ella! is bookended by gospel as befits the angelic beginning and (happy) ending. “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” “I Shall Not Be Moved” and “Swing Low” are rousing renditions. The play-out number, “When the Saints Go Marching In” is an especially smart choice: Armstrong’s 1938 recording of it, marrying old time gospel and jazz, ensured the piece’s place forevermore as a solid jazz standard in the New Orleans style.
What comes in between these gospel numbers are American Songbook standards, heavily leaning toward George and Ira Gershwin: “Stepping Out,” “Cheek To Cheek,” “Love is Here To Stay” and “They All Laughed,” for instance. These tunes admirably advance the storyline along, but dominate the overall character of the show at the sake of featuring more jazz numbers, such as “St. James Infirmary,” a classic among jazz standards, and “Basin Street Blues.” These two outstanding components of the show left one begging for more of the same. As “Ella” points out, some say Louis Armstrong actually invented jazz. In fact he didn’t, but Armstrong certainly did further the genre with a great deal of innovation. And while it’s true that both performers individually in their many recordings, and in the three albums they made together, covered the entire repertoire of the Songbook, their legacy is ultimately in the world of jazz. Both Armstrong and Fitzgerald were masters of scat, and thus that component of “Stomping at the Savoy” and the segue into “Undecided” (Sid Robin/Charlie Shavers) was a welcome taste of the jazzy side of the duo. Of course, Fitzgerald’s 1938 breakthrough hit, “A Tisket A Tasket” (Fitzgerald and Al Feldman, based on a folk ditty), and what has become one of Armstrong’s signature songs, “What A Wonderful World” (Bob Thiele/George David Weiss) were appropriately featured.
Director Jeff Whiting has done an excellent job of keeping Louis-and-Ella! moving along smartly, but If there is a major shortcoming in Louis-and-Ella! it’s that Kendall doesn’t play the trumpet. He’s written the text around this fact, and there is a trumpet that resides near him on stage which is handled at certain points, but the problem remains. Armstrong and his horn were practically one, so it’s a wonder why Whiting (and Kendall) didn’t deal more effectively with the deficiency around the instrument. There is one segment, during “Skylark,” where band trumpeter Eli Asher comes forward and plays a “duet” with “Louis.” The illusion works. Too bad there wasn’t more of this kind of cover, because Asher is an ace horn player. He, along with Sean Nowell on tenor saxophone, Brian Floody on drums and Belden Bullock on upright bass, under the musical direction of pianist Mark Berman, played at a consistently high level and got to display their chops with “When You’re Smiling” (Larry Shay/Mark Fisher/Joe Goodwin) as an intro to Act Two. By the end of Louis-and-Ella!, with its take-away of love and redemption, there’s no doubt that Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald (whose centenary is this year) are worthy to be remembered and exalted for now and evermore.
Louis-and-Ella! was performed March 5 at 6:30 PM at The Cutting Room (44 East 32nd Street (between Park and Madison Avenues), 212-691-1900, www.thecuttingroomnyc.com