'Ella, the Musical' returns to Walnut Creek's Lesher Center

By Pat Craig


POSTED:   06/09/2014 12:00:00 PM PDT


Yvette Cason had been thinking about the icons, the jazz singers you'd see Sunday nights on Ed Sullivan, or through the blue haze of dimly lit jazz clubs, small, smoky and vibrantly electric rooms where legends performed only an arm's length away.

But play one onstage? The notion seemed like kind of a dreamy paradise to Cason, until she won the role of Ella Fitzgerald in "Ella, the Musical," which returns to the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek on June 25. The show had a strong run there last fall, when it opened Center Repertory Company's season.

Cason, who lives in Southern California with her husband and just-graduated-from-eighth-grade son, got a taste of the jazz rooms when she was a student at Boston's Berklee College of Music. A couple of her professors were performers and invited her to sing with them, and the experiences wound up helping seal the deal on "Ella" for Cason, who has also appeared in "Dreamgirls" on Broadway.

"I think I got the role for a couple of reasons," she says. "Michael (Butler, Center Rep's artistic director) said he wouldn't want to do the show without me, and because I could scat." She takes particular pride in her scat singing, a technique in which a singer solos with a string of bending, stretching nonverbal sounds, essentially turning her voice into a musical instrument. It was a technique that Fitzgerald made legendary.

Cason has become a big fan of the jazz singers of the mid-20th century, playing their music and viewing film clips as she researched Fitzgerald and her contemporaries, such Sarah Vaughan. And the research involved more than music.

While most people will be drawn to "Ella, the Musical" by the music (and, certainly, Cason loves performing it), they also get a lesson on the character being portrayed onstage.

"I learned a lot about Ella while I was doing my research," she said. "I didn't know she had such an awful childhood and what horrible times she had while growing up."

Cason insists her performance -- the show entails storytelling as well as singing with a backing band -- should in no way be considered an imitation of Fitzgerald but rather a tribute that attempts to catch the spirit and style of the performer. And, based on her performance last fall in Walnut Creek, she does that quite well, even at times actually seeming to be the identical image of Fitzgerald.

"It's the biggest compliment when someone said they felt like they saw Ella in my show; I want them to have the feeling of experiencing Ella," Cason said. "But if you look and listen to her closely, you realize nobody could be Ella. There are movements and things she does with her voice nobody could duplicate."

But she comes pretty doggone close. And she is aided in no small fashion by the band of jazz players who accompany her during the show.

"That's why it's so important to have real jazz performers, players who have been in the clubs and concerts and know how it is," she said. "This isn't to take anything away from people who play for musicals. It's just that jazz players have an instinct for this."

"Ella" plays June 25-July 6 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts. Tickets, at $40-$65, may be reserved at 925-943-7469 or www.centerrep.org.


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Ella Fitzgerald musical opens Center REPertory Company season


Staring at the world from beneath hair the color of dirty snow, it's hard to believe I was once 10 or 11, listening to tunes involving the end of a teen romance, an itsy, bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka dot bikini and tan shoes with pink shoelaces.

In fact, at the time, the only diversion from this hollow, but fun, musical banquet was on the Sunday evenings when Ella Fitzgerald was on "The Ed Sullivan Show." I would ignore any other singing act, unless Ed said it was "for you youngsters out there."

But Ella was something different. Hers was a pure, clear voice that was the defining standard of the Great American Songbook, tunes delivered perfectly in the style any other rendition would be judged against.

That is why I'm eagerly awaiting "Ella, the Musical," which opens next week at Walnut Creek's Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts.

Star Yvette Carson is able to project the physical appearance of Ella, which will augment the sensation of reality in the piece, which is about a 1966 concert she considered one of the most important in her life.

During the first act, the jazz singer prepares for the concert, singing a little as she reflects on her career, life and love for the music she sings so beautifully.

The second act is a version of the concert, which places Ella center stage, backed by an orchestra and singing many of her hits, including "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "How High the Moon" and "That Old Black Magic."

"Ella" is part of what has become an annual feature of Center Repertory Company's season -- the small musical in which a talented group of performers tell a story with lots of music, excellent scenery, great production values, and terrific direction, often done by Robert Barry Fleming (a man with a knack for helping his performers bring out the heart of the entertainers they are playing).


-- Pat Craig, San Jose Mercury News-September 3, 2013


Center REP's Ella coming to Lesher Center


The queen of jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, comes to the Lesher Arts Center this weekend as Center Repertory Theater presents "Ella, the Musical."

Yvette Cason, who played Effie in the Broadway hit "Dreamgirls," portrays the musical icon.

Set in 1966, the musical weaves myth, memory and music to tell the uplifting and poignant story of one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time. In between singing such hits as "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "How High the Moon" and "That Old Black Magic," the fabled songstress reflects on her life, her secrets and her love of music.

Robert Barry Fleming directs. The show runs Sept. 6 through Oct. 12. For tickets, call 925-943-SHOW or go to www.lesherartscenter.org.


-- Sally Hogarty, Contra Costa Times-September 4, 2013