By Chris Jones
E. Faye Butler -- whose crackling performance in Northlight Theatre's "Ella" brought the house down Wednesday night -- was a fixture for years on the suburban musical circuit, playing everything from Dolly Levi to a red-hot mama to a man-eating plant. As with many Chicago actors, it took her years to finally get noticed. But get noticed she eventually did, showing up last year as the Witch in a Broadway-ready revival of "The Wiz" at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Well, Butler's back in town, in her vocal prime, and playing Ella Fitzgerald. The short break hasn't made the heart grow fonder -- most Chicago hearts were already pretty fond -- but it surely makes you better appreciate the stature, smarts, chops and soul of someone we've always complacently enjoyed.
It will come as no shock to hear that "Ella," directed by Rob Ruggiero, is a revue of music recorded by Ella Fitzgerald. Like similar biographical vehicles, Jeffrey Hatcher's light book relies on some contrivance to fire up the bio-monologue between songs -- in this case Ella is rehearsing a 1966 concert and working on improving her patter in Act One, and then performing it (in France) in Act Two.
This is not a riveting narrative frame -- two actors aren't enough to tell a full story (David Parkes plays Ella's manager and members of the crack four-piece band also pull vague double-duty as men in her life). The easy-going show comes with far less social context than we get at Black Ensemble Theatre, for example. You don't get much new information.
But then you won't be there for information, but for music. And trumpeter Ron Haynes delivers an entire show's worth all by himself.
I wouldn't claim Butler channels Fitzgerald, and it goes without saying that she can't fully re-create her distinctive scat. But in shows like this, one craves only a big, creative, full-throated, seemingly spontaneous interpretation underpinned with emotional truth and pleasing to the ear. And -- backed by glamorously retro production values -- that's exactly what you get in one of the best star performances of the year.
"Ella" plays through Jan. 6 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Call 847-673-6300.