Louis and Ella! A New Jazzical was a fun, inventive journey with two greats of music. Written by Trent Armand Kendall and directed by Jeff Whiting, it imagines Louis Armstrong (Trent Armand Kendall) meeting Ella Fitzgerald (Anita Jackson) in heaven. With a full band behind them, they sing, individually and together, some of their classic songs, in between arguing, bantering, and reminiscing.
The show begins and ends with Kendall and Jackson as angels dressed in white robes. They start with a spirited rendition of “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” before giving brief biographical information about Louis and Ella. There’s some comedy between these heavenly beings: Kendall is Angel Number One while Jackson is Angel Number Two. “Why am I Angel Number 2?” Jackson asks. Kendall replies, “Because I wrote the show.” During their song, when Kendall sings “Do you want to go to heaven when you die?” Jackson excitedly responds, “I do!” They close the show with “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which had the whole audience clapping along.
The costumes, designed by Kendall, help to reflect the characters’ personality. Louis first appears in all black, vest, shirt, and pants. After performing for a while, he goes offstage and returns wearing a fedora and fur coat, looking particularly rakish; Ella takes the coat and returns it offstage, while Louis throws off the fedora. In the second act, he wears a tux. Ella wears a tasteful black and white skirt with a similar sleeveless jacket in the first act. For the second, she wears an elegant green gown.
Kendall plays Louis as something of a charming rogue. When he first enters, he says to the trumpeter Eli Asher, playing the Angel Gabriel, “If you’re Gabriel, I must be…dead.” At one point he tries to kiss Ella, who slaps him so hard he lands on his rear-end. After Ella refuses to dance with him, they break into a duet of “I Won’t Dance.” When Ella suggests that he was “more suited for a warmer climate” he lightheartedly replies, “I’ve been in the dark places for so long, I thought it was time to shake off the blues.” He wants to do a heavenly concert for “the Lord, when Ella quashes this idea, they segue into a duet of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”
He does go to those dark places at times, though. Reflecting on his several marriages, he considers that he thought his first wife would be his only one, before singing “Lucille” a loving tribute to his last wife. When Ella thinks how sweet it is “to be in heaven surrounded by all those you love,” tears nearly come to his eyes. He describes to Ella how his hands would tremble and his lips would bleed from constantly blowing the trumpet, and wonders what he could do if he couldn’t play.
The musical in fact seems to explore this idea, as Louis constantly carries a silver trumpet, yet only appears to play for one song, Ella’s “Skylark”, despite Ella hounding him to take it up. If Kendall does not actually play it, he does a fantastic job of pretending to play. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, as Kendall captures Louis’ deep, raspy voice in the songs, from “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” to “Basin Street Blues” and “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love).” His final number, “What a Wonderful World” is a beautiful ending. “Love is what’s important” he says in the middle of that song.
Jackson plays an elegant, charming Ella, who nevertheless bites. Worried about her chances of going to “the upper levels” of heaven by being with Louis, she tells him “no monkey business and no jazz!” Nixing Louis’ concert suggestion, she does not want to “sing for her supper and be judged in this way.”
She has her heartfelt moments too. She remembers that her critics called her “weak and wobbly.” Reminiscing about how her mother died when she was young, and she fled to Harlem, where she worked as a numbers runner before becoming a singer. She nearly weeps thinking about “the lonely nights away from home.” She has beautiful insights as well, however. She makes a toast of champagne with Louis to “those friends who sometimes love us better than we love ourselves” before singing “One More for the Road.” She consoles Louis that “our sorrows help to shape us” but we don’t have to be ashamed of them.
Her duets with Louis, including “They All Laughed” and “Too Marvelous for Words” are just as beautiful as her solo numbers, like “Something to Live For” and “A Tisket, a Tasket”, with wonderful facial expressions and tone. Louis finds a couple of people who scat for him, while Ella has the rest of the audience repeat a couple scat lines before she bedazzles with an incredibly long and complex scat.
The band is equally impressive, with Mark Berman leading on piano, Eli Asher on trumpet, Belden Bullock on bass, Brian Floody on drums and percussion, and Sean Nowell on sax. Before the second act begins, they play a lively tune with solos from each performer. They mesh perfectly with Kendall and Jackson.
Kendall also designed the lighting, which captures the various mood changes. During the more serious moments, it is dark and somber, while for the funny sections, it is bright and cheery. It really enhances the singing and music.
Jeff Whiting has done an excellent job directing. Ella and Louis’ movement around the stage feels natural, and the dramatic, reflective moments fit perfectly around the songs. It is a clever device that brings these two together, and makes for a beautiful combination of music and theater.
Running Time: Two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
Louis and Ella! was presented by Live Arts Maryland, J. Ernest Green, Music Director, on September 25, 2016, at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts – 801 Chase Street in Annapolis, MD. For tickets to other LiveArts Maryland performances and Annapolis Chorale performances, call the box office at (410) 280-5640, or purchase them online.