"People say that black people must be inferior because they don't make great art," exclaims Marilyn Monroe to Ella Fitzgerald. "But Shakespeare is Duke Ellington. Bach is Charlie Parker. It's the same beauty, the same complexity, just in a different form."
In Ella, Meet Marilyn the spotlight is on a curious piece of showbiz history involving the movie superstar and the jazz legend. Although she'd sold millions of records, Fitzgerald was kept out of many of America's glamorous clubs because of her colour.
When Monroe charmed the owner of Hollywood's whites-only Mocambo nightclub into booking Fitzgerald for a five-night run, it changed the course of the singer's career. The deal involved Monroe promising to sit in the front row every night, and she went backstage too. Monroe, her words almost tumbling over each other in her excitement, confesses that she, "wakes up and goes to sleep listening to her records". Exactly what girlish confidences were shared is anyone's guess.
For Bonnie Greer, it was a tantalising prospect. The playwright (Jitterbug, Munda Negra, Dancing On Blackwater), familiar from her appearances on Newsnight Review, had the idea of creating a series of brief encounters between the two. Devised for radio, it is now something more substantial. Although it's not sung, the mention of "A-Tisket, A-Tasket", which Fitzgerald adapted from a nursery rhyme and childhood game, for example, gives Greer an angle from which the two can delve into their unhappy childhoods.
But the thread of the dialogue is not helped by the constant piano underscoring, and the exegeses inserted into the story verge on the embarrassing. What could be otherwise a delightful string of songs is turned into a ramshackle play, propped up by music.
The former Coronation Street star Sally Lindsay makes a passable, fluffy Monroe - babyish, breathy voice in "I Wanna Be Loved By You" - though not quite capturing the mystique or, to be honest, the svelteness of her voluptuous figure.
Playing both a historian-narrator and the "First Lady of Song" herself, Rain Pryor may not bear much physical resemblance to the singer but what she lacks in appearance she more than makes up for in the dignity and demeanour of her characterisation. Most impressive of all is her clear, vibrant voice and penetrating interpretation of some of Fitzgerald's numbers, especially in her solo numbers, "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye", "Lady Is A Tramp", "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and "Bewitched".
She manages to make it sound effortless and, crucially, to swing. She alone is worth the ticket.
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