It’s Sunday, June 4, 1974, and we’re already in jeopardy of missing our 8pm NYC curtain time.
We are two Jersey Shore high school kids traveling in one faded maroon ’69 Chevy Nova — but, now, thanks to an incredible volume of traffic, we find ourselves inching our way down the ramp to the Lincoln Tunnel toward the toll booths… and, naturally, the engine decides to overheat.
Motorists peer out their windows as steam billows everywhere, ultimately forcing us to pull over into the safety area just outside the tunnel.
As we nervously try to figure out what to do, a good Samaritan stops to help by opening the Chevy’s hood and — after the longest 20 minutes of our lives — adds water to the car’s radiator now that the engine has finally cooled down.
After a huge thank you, we’re on our way through the tunnel, heading uptown into more city traffic.
Finally arriving at New York City’s Avery Fisher Hall with just moments to spare, we make our way to our balcony seats at the precise moment the curtain is going up for tonight’s “Great Performance at Lincoln Center” by “The First Lady of Song” — musical icon and jazz legend, Ella Fitzgerald!
And on that magical evening, “The Queen of Jazz” — “Lady Ella” herself — demonstrates why she is one of the greatest singers to have ever graced a stage. She not only impresses us with her unique phrasing, impeccable diction, outstanding intonation, and world-famous tone, but also her friendly and warm personality.
We are amazed.
Fast forward four decades.
It’s also a Sunday — Feb. 12, 2017. We’re no longer teenagers, and that ’69 Chevy Nova is all but a faded memory.
And, unlike back in 1974, we manage to arrive at the Algonquin Arts Theatre in Manasquan, NJ, with plenty of time to spare before the curtain rises. Today, we’re here to see an original musical theater production which focuses on the lives of jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong entitled Louis-and-Ella! by Trent Armand Kendall.
Kendall, a multi-talented writer, actor, and singer, is the creator of Louis-and-Ella!, an original fantasy depicting Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald as they meet in heaven on Judgment Day. The show features classic jazz numbers in addition to humor, thought-provoking moments, and nostalgic reminders as to why these two musicians have become legendary figures around the globe.
In the production, Kendall plays the role of Louis Armstrong. His previous live performance credits include The Scottsboro Boys (LA Premier), Cats (International), Into the Woods (Broadway Revival), Five Guys Named Moe (London’s West End), and The Color Purple (First National Tour). In addition, he has appeared on television on shows like Blue Bloods, Law and Order, and Dave Chappelle’s Show; in films such as The Pink Panther; and on recordings with artists including Cher.
NaTasha Yvette Williams plays the role of Ella Fitzgerald in Kendall’s production. Williams made her Broadway debut as Sofia in The Color Purple and also originated the role of Mammy in the West End’s Gone With the Wind. Other stage credits include All Shook Up, Godspell, Abyssinia, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Parade, in addition to the role of Mariah in the recent Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess.
Rounding out the cast is Eli Asher, who plays Angel Gabriel, in addition to playing trumpet with the Louis-and-Ella! band, which also features Sean Nowel on saxophone, Belden Bullock on bass, Brian Floody on drums, and music director Mark Berman on piano.
Prior to the performance, we have an opportunity to chat with Mr. Kendall to find out about his reasons for creating Louis-and-Ella!
“Jazz is really where I’m rooted,” explains Kendall, so “once I understood the innovations” that Louis Armstrong “made — not only as a musician, but as a vocalist, and as an ambassador for the US around the world — as a kid, I developed a real strong affection for this man.”
Adding, “And as I got older, I started realizing that I wanted to touch people in similar ways,” Kendall acknowledges, “I wanted to use part of his personality and see if I could grab onto that and incorporate it into who I am as an entertainer.” As a result, Kendall says he decided to “write something for myself to play that has a theme and a deep meaning,” and, in so doing, “was naturally drawn to tell the story of Louis Armstrong.”
Photos by Love Imagery
As a long-time admirer of Ella Fitzgerald as well, Kendall decided to create a musical which would focus on both Armstrong and Fitzgerald, despite the feeling that finding an actress who could play the Fitzgerald role “was going to be a tall order.” As Kendall explains, ‘There are not too many people who are brave enough to take on Ella!”
Kendall ultimately found his Ella in NaTasha Yvette Williams who, he says, can “do all the mechanics of the scatting” as well as “play all of the emotional beats” to help him recreate “a chemistry” on stage. He reveals that “what I appreciate the most with her,” however, “is the fact that when we perform together on stage, she really looks me in the eye, and when she takes my hand, she really feels my hand, and she’s not just going through the motions.”
Concludes Kendall, “She literally breaks my heart every time we do the show.”
Making our way through the lobby and into the auditorium of Manasquan NJ’s Algonquin Arts Theatre, we can’t help but notice — directly in the center of the stage — a gleaming golden trumpet sitting on a stand, a spotlight shining upon it, making it glow in front of a lovely muted blue background.
As audience members stop to take note of it, too, we also notice that the stage is set with an electronic keyboard, acoustic bass, drum kit, stands holding a second trumpet and a tenor saxophone, not to mention microphones, bar stools, and music stands.
As musicians begin to take the stage, we hear a drumbeat and, then, see two actors in white robes enter to the 18th century spiritual, “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” both singing, “I want to get to heaven when I die.”
These actors, of course, are Trent Armand Kendall and NaTasha Yvette Williams, appearing as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald in angelic forms on the precipice of a momentous decision:
Is it really time for Louis and Ella to enter heaven and spend the rest of eternity with their loved ones who have gone before them? Or, instead, should they go back and reflect on moments in their lives on earth to find out, as Louis wonders, if he “will be remembered” or, as Ella contemplates, if she has any “earthly regrets”?
Wanting to make absolutely certain they’re ready for the ultimate transition, Louis and Ella reappear on earth in their human forms where they perform a variety of glorious musical numbers, all of which advance the plot and help them to decide if their lives were complete enough to enter heaven. Songs include Irving Berlin’s “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” and “Cheek to Cheek”; George and Ira Gershwin’s “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “They All Laughed”; in addition to many more.
Highlights include Williams’ sublime performance of Benny Goodman’s “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” her incredibly rich voice filling the theater, scatting effortlessly over the tight jazz band. Another is her wonderful rendition of Ella’s 1938 hit with The Chick Webb Orchestra, “A Tisket, A Tasket,” Williams making this song her own while evoking memories of the joyous sound of Ms. Fitzgerald, particularly with regards to her meticulous phrasing and spot-on use of vibrato.
Additional highlights include a hilarious audience participation sequence where Kendall and Williams invite folks in the crowd to scat sing along with them, not to mention Kendall’s heart-warming performance of a lesser-known Louis Armstrong song, “The Home Fire.” This number finds Kendall strolling through the audience, singing and swinging, crooning with his beautiful rich tone, and flashing that familiar smile which invokes the spirit of the actual Louis Armstrong.
Still another highlight is Williams’ stunning version of the Johnny Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael composition, “Skylark,” her voice warm and gentle, floating above the talented musicians as Louis, played by Kendall, “joins in” on trumpet, courtesy of music supplied by trumpeter Eli Asher.
Perhaps the greatest moment of the entire production, however, is Trent Armand Kendall’s show-stopping rendition of Louis Armstrong’s classic, “What a Wonderful World,” a performance capable of bringing audience members to tears as it viscerally reminds them how wonderful the world is thanks to the larger-than-life personality and music of the great Louis Armstrong.
And because, as “Ella” explains in the show, “The only thing better than singing is more singing!,” Kendall and Williams conclude this swinging production with a rousing vocal medley. In this compilation, they pair the spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” with Louis Armstrong’s 1938 version of the famous gospel hymn, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the crowd rising to its feet in appreciation of this impressive afternoon of jazz at The Algonquin Arts Theatre!
As members of the crowd make their way out of the auditorium — with smiles on their faces and a little spring in their steps — we chat with several audience members who share their thoughts with us regarding this afternoon’s performance.
Maddy, Julie, and Domenick, three youngsters from Manasquan, tell us they were brought to the show by their parents as “a treat” because they “love music.”
And just how did these kids enjoy Louis-and-Ella!?
“It was great!” exclaims Maddy, a clarinet player — to which Julie agrees, chiming in and calling it “really good.”
Likewise, Domenick, a saxophone player, tells us he considers the production, “Awesome.”
Alma from Eatontown — a member of America’s greatest generation — also enjoyed Louis-and-Ella!
Alma says she came to the show today because, as she explains, “my mom and dad used to go to shows in New York and they saw all the jazz greats at places like The Savoy.” As a result, she declares, “I grew up with this music!”
Husband and wife Debrah and George, from Howell, say they, too, had a wonderful time, calling the production “absolutely fabulous,” and acknowledging, “we’re so glad we decided to come.”
And, for us, after coming full circle seeing the actual Ella Fitzgerald over 40 years ago in her “Great Performance at Lincoln Center” and, today, experiencing such a high-quality tribute to both Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, we’re left feeling much as the main characters in this show do once they come to the realization that — in terms of both music and life — as Ella so eloquently states in the show, “Where there’s love and inspiration, you can’t go wrong.”
To learn more about Trent Armond Kendall’s future performances, recordings, and more please go to trentkendall.com. For information on upcoming programming at The Algonquin Arts Theatre — including Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story from April 1–9, 2017 — please to to algonquinarts.org.
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