Alexis J. Roston Salutes Ella Fitzgerald as ‘First Lady of Song’

May 6, 2021

By Jacquelyn D. Heath
Special to The Milwaukee Times

Alexis J. Roston sings Ella Fitzgerald

The last week of April, 2021 marked the return of live theater to Milwaukee, with the opening of First Lady of Song: Alexis J. Roston Sings Ella Fitzgerald, at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

With a program presented concert-style, Chicago- based actress Alexis J. Roston either could have tried to assume the persona of Ella, or simply have performed the music Fitzgerald made famous; Roston chose the latter approach, accompanied by a four-piece combo; and she did not disappoint. Between songs, she shared vignettes about the life of the legendary singer, who rose to fame in the early 1930’s after winning first prize at the Apollo Theater’s iconic weekly amateur talent show. She went on to become the featured vocalist with some of the most famous Big Bands of the era, including the Chick Webb Orchestra and the Benny Goodman Orchestra. She was also a top recording artist, performing solo as well as in collaboration with other popular music greats, such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. She also acted in movies and commercials, and was a frequent guest performer on the top television variety shows of the 1950’s, ‘60’s and 70’s.

Her repertoire comprised large portions of what nowadays is known as “The Great American Songbook” – those songs composed by some of the greats of American songwriting, such as Ira and George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, which have stood the test of time and genre. They’re the kind of songs that make you recall what you were doing and where you were the first time you heard them, and that continue to evoke memories and emotions.

By the time Ella Fitzgerald’s 50-plus year career ended in 1993 with her final public performance – she passed away in 1996 at age 79 — she had performed around the world for fans on every continent. Her distinctive mellow vocal styling – characterized by her impeccable diction, pure tone, timing, phrasing and signature improvisational ability known as “scat singing” — had graced not only jazz, but swing, be-bop, traditional pop and blues as well. Whatever she sang, Ella Fitzgerald allowed her voice to become another finely tuned instrument in the band, whose job it was to deliver the words and melody and all their moods.

Roston’s vocals were versatile and strong enough to deliver a performance that was a tribute to Ella, not an imitation of her. Hence, the audience could be entertained and sit back and enjoy a musical stroll down memory lane. The concert was delivered in two sets, time enough for Roston to make a quick wardrobe change. It also gave the musicians – musical director Jo Ann Daugherty on piano, drummer Ryan Bennett, Joshua Ramos on bass, and Rajiv Halim on saxophone and flute — the opportunity to treat the audience to a mini-jazz jam session.

First Lady of Song: Alexis J. Roston Sings Ella Fitzgerald runs through Sunday, May 23, 2021 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Quadracci Powerhouse, 108 East Wells Street. Capacity is limited to 25 percent of seating and masks are required. For tickets to evening and matinee performances, visit milwaukeerep.com; or call 414/224-9490. Please remember to allow extra time before curtain to observe required COVID-19 safety protocols, which include temperature-taking and social distancing.