From left: Ayo and Rochelle Rice sang the music of Ella Fitzgerald in the Signature Theatre cabaret "First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald." (Courtesy of Signature Theatre)
From left: Ayo and Rochelle Rice sang the music of Ella Fitzgerald in the Signature Theatre cabaret "First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald." (Courtesy of Signature Theatre)

World-renowned entertainer Ella Fitzgerald has been widely celebrated for her unique singing style notably peppered with scatting, a form of improvisation that deviates from a melody. Fitzgerald’s life in song was featured in the cabaret show, “First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald,” staged by Signature Theatre in Shirlington, Va.

“First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald” at Signature Theatre in Shirlington, Va., featured the songs made popular by the iconic singer. (Courtesy of Signature Theatre)

Mark Meadows, director of cabarets at Signature, found the perfect voices in Ayo and Rochelle Rice to bring Fitzgerald’s popular songs to life. Ayo studied jazz voice at Howard University and Rice has worked on several music projects and toured with the world-renowned Sweet Honey In The Rock.

Signature’s cabaret is a biography of Fitzgerald’s life surrounded by some of her best songs. Intertwined with singing from Ayo and Rice, the ladies shared facts from Fitzgerald’s life. She was born in Newport News, Va, and her family moved to Westchester County, N.Y., before Fitzgerald found her way to amateur night at the Apollo Theater. 

The show immediately jumped off with “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and “A Tisket, A Tasket,” the song that gave Fitzgerald immediate recognition as a young singer when she sang it in a black and white 1942 Abbott and Costello movie, “Ride Em Cowboy.” 

Stellar Interpretation of Fitzgerald

Both Rice and Ayo have strong multi-octave ranges. They excelled in demonstrating their scatting chops. After all, that is what Fitzgerald fans wanted to hear. These ladies sang a comprehensive Fitzgerald catalog that included “You Belong to Me,” “Oh Lady Be Good,” and “Running Wild,” which was just the tip of the iceberg that made the Signature Theatre audiences hum along.

Both singers’ solos showcased their astute ability to interpret Fitzgerald’s songs. Rice sang a beautiful melodic version of “The Very Thought of You.” Ayo sang a heart-wrenching rendition of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David hit “A House is Not a Home.” Many of the songs had Ayo and Rice performing duets. The best from the set was Rice and Ayo singing “Mack the Knife,” a popular Fitzgerald hit from the “Live in Berlin” album. As performed in Berlin, most of the lyrics and scatting were improvised to cover for the fact that the versatile Fitzgerald forgot most of the words.

The quartet that accompanied Ayo and Rice included Brent Birkhead on alto sax, Delorean Fullington on bass, CV Dashiell on drums and Josh Jenkins on piano. The musicians smiled a lot, showing they were having a good time.  

Fitzgerald was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for over 50 years. Reading Ayo’s bio, the audience learns that the Howard alumna portrayed a young Fitzgerald in the HBO Documentary “The Apollo” and its subsequent album “Ella’s 100th Live at the Apollo.” When Ayo learned she would be in this cabaret, she was very thrilled.

“It felt surreal,” Ayo said. “I felt my inner child smile. I can’t believe I get to do this.”More cabarets and other performances are on the Signature Theatre schedule. Visit the website

Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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