Bringing Ella and Patsy to life on stage

Tina Fabrique
Tina Fabrique (Ella Fitzgerald) in The Laguna Playhouse presentation of Ella.
Photo Courtesy of Ed Krieger, The Laguna Playhouse

It's been a summer of celebrating iconic American singers on Twin Cities stages. At the Chanhassan Dinner Theater, "Always, Patsy Cline," the story of the country songstress, has been on stage since April.

Meanwhile, "Ella," a musical about the life of jazz great Ella Fitzgerald, is enjoying an extended run at the Guthrie Theater.

Whether you're a devotee of the American songbook or hang out in karaoke bars, there are few voices in popular music more recognizable than Patsy Cline or Ella Fitzgerald. But the artists who are bringing these giants to life on stage by no means consider themselves impersonators.

Tina Fabrique has played Ella in nearly 20 regional productions since the show was created in 2005. Before that, Fabrique sang Ella's canon with the Duke Ellington Orchestra for three years.

"So I was familiar with the songs and the material, but what I tried to embrace was more the spirit of the woman, trying to capture who she was," Fabrique said.

As the show points out, it was Ella Fitzgerald's indomitable spirit that helped her rise above a life full of hurt. Fitzgerald's mother died when she was 14, her stepfather was abusive and when she was sent to a so-called colored orphanage, she was beaten by staff. Tina Fabrique said whenever you have deep pain in your life you have a choice; to live through it, or, in the case of Fitzgerald, use your art to push it away.

"She made the choice to find happiness in rendering her spirit and heart to her audience, 101 percent, every performance," she said.

Monica Heuser as Patsy Cline
Monica Heuser as Patsy Cline in "Always, Patsy Cline."
Photo Courtesy of Act One

Fabrique said her artistic challenge in the show is to convey the warmth and unique tone of Ella's voice. While Fitzgerald had the dexterity and agility to surpass the vocal acrobatics of many of today's singers, Ella knew how to exercise restraint.

"These days, a lot of licks and twists and turns are the popular thing, but she would take a melody and she would caress it," she said. "She could sing something and it would just be so unpredictable, but it wasn't worked at. It always sound relaxed. It always sounded like she just took a deep breath, and decided to do this at the last moment."

One local reviewer lauded what he called Tina Fabrique's "pitch perfect scattitude" in her portrayal of Ella. It's partly because Fabrique learned all of Fitzgerald's scats note for note.

"Simply because the public may not know that they know the scats, but they do," Fabrique said. "And if you sing something different, or you take it melodically somewhere else, they'll say 'I don't know what it is but that's not what Ella did,' you know what I'm saying?"

That's Monica Heuser, who plays Patsy Cline, said that's where it's a fine line between impersonation, a word she doesn't like to use.

"But you do have to nail what those people know out there that love those artists, or they get upset," Heuser said.

Monica Heuser has made a living off her ability to embody Patsy Cline's voice and personality since she came to the Twin Cities more than ten years ago. Patsy Cline's estate has even given her its official stamp of approval.

Heuser describes Cline as a man's man and a girl's girl. She admires Cline's gutsiness as a trailblazer for women in country music, and her loyalty and devotion to her friends. Heuser said her job is to remain true to Cline as a human being.

"That's what the audience wants," she said. "They want that person to be alive again and vibrant and before their eyes again because in Patsy's case she left this world way too early."

Like Ella Fitzgerald, Patsy Cline's childhood was marked by pain. Her father abandoned the family when she was young. But Cline didn't sing to keep her suffering at bay, she sang to release it. Cline's characteristic vocal slips and slides come naturally to Heuser. To become Patsy, she has to embrace her vulnerability.

"There are some nights where I have to be really careful," she said. "I really tear up during 'Crazy.' I really tear up during 'If I could see the world through the eyes of a child.' I'm kind of tearing up right now just thinking about it."

Heuser said it's in Cline's delivery. "She's just singing from her heart the way people out there would love to sing from their heart, but maybe they can't sing," she said. "But she's doing it for us all."

Just like Monica Heuser and Tina Fabrique have been singing for audiences all summer long. Both confessed to being mutual admirers when they met in the studio and promised to take in each other's performances.

"Ella's" extended run at the Guthrie winds up on Sept. 20. "Always, Patsy Cline," is on stage at Chanhassan Dinner Theater through Oct. 31.

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