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Pittsburgh theater to have Steubenville touch

October 4, 2009
By ROSS GALLABRESE, Executive editor

STEUBENVILLE - There will be a Steubenville touch to Pittsburgh theater this fall.

Two productions scheduled for the next several weeks - "Ella" at the Pittsburgh Public Theater and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" at the City Theatre - have been written by Steubenville native Jeffrey Hatcher.

"Obviously, it's a coincidence," Hatcher said of the works being produced at the same time in the same city.

"Ella," a bio-musical about jazz-legend Ella Fitzgerald, opened Thursday and runs through Nov. 1 at the O'Reilly Theater. "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," an adaptation of the classic tale, runs Oct. 17 through Nov. 8.

"The productions are different, of course," said Hatcher, a 1976 graduate of Wintersville High School. "One is a musical about a jazz great and the other is a study in murder. If anyone wants to see both, they will have a good idea about the disparate kind of things that I do."

"Ella" stars Tina Fabrique as the First Lady of Song. It's set in 1966 on the French Riviera during a rehearsal and concert by Fitzgerald and her combo. During the course of the performance, theatergoers get to meet people who were important to her, from Chick Webb (portrayed by Rodney Harper) who gave Ella her first break, to jazz trumpet legend Louie Armstrong (Ron Haynes) to bassist Ray Brown (Clifton Kellem), who became her husband.

Hatcher became involved with "Ella" about six years ago.

"A friend was working on the play with a different writer, and things weren't working out as well as he liked,' Hatcher explained. "I came in and did a new book for the show.

"People are sometimes confused by that term," Hatcher added. "It doesn't mean that I actually wrote a book about Ella Fitzgerald, it means that I wrote the story. Someone else then comes along and handles the music."

Fabrique's work should be familiar to most who attend the show. In addition to a receiving a Tony nomination for "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk," she sang the theme song for the PBS series "Reading Rainbow."

She shines as Fitzgerald.

"She does not do a spot-on performance - an impersonation - but she has the rhythm and really picks up the spirit of it," Hatcher said.

The production features 23 hits, including "Lady Be Good," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "Night and Day," "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and, of course, "How High the Moon."

But "Ella" is more than just the music, Hatcher explained.

"We all know who Ella Fitzgerald is, but we really don't know much about her," he said. "If you look at all of the jazz greats, we can say that we know a little bit about them. Ella, however, was a private person. The problems in her life came that she lived most of her life trying to be a good mother while still being the first lady of song.

"I hope that people who came to hear the songs will come away feeling that they know a lot more about her life than they did before the show."

Hatcher, the son of the late Paul and Virginia Hatcher, said "Ella" and "Jekyll and Hyde" do have a common thread.

"Actually, 'Jekyll and Hyde' came about while we were doing 'Ella' in Arizona," Hatcher said. "A person who was working on the production asked if I had ever thought about doing a version of Jekyll and Hyde."

The production is based on the story that Robert Louis Stevenson first told in his 1886 novella "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde." Stage adaptations appeared about one year after the book was published, and the story has been the basis of countless movies and stage productions since.

The story is still about the brutal, mysterious figure that haunts the streets of London under the cloak of darkness, while Jekyll displays increasingly erratic behavior. Jekyll's friends confront the monstrous Hyde, but only Hyde's beautiful mistress may hold the solution.

Hatcher's take is a little different.

"A lot of people know the general idea even if they have never read the book or seen an adaptation," Hatcher said. "Any time you adapt something that is so familiar, you have to find something to make it fresh or it will be hack work."

Hatcher has made his adaption different by involving the entire cast in different roles.

"One person plays the doctor, and everybody else in the cast takes a turn playing Hyde," Hatcher explained.

"When he drinks the potion, you see a different result each time. It's just like we don't always react to drinking alcohol the same way every time. Sometimes you're silly, sometimes you're sexy, sometimes you're a bore.

"As the play progresses, every time there is a transformation, a little bit of Jekyll creeps into Hyde and a little bit of Hyde creeps into Jekyll."

A graduate of Denison University, Hatcher said he first became interested in theater when, as a youngster growing up in Steubenville, he had the opportunity to look at programs from shows that had been produced in New York, Chicago and London dating back to 1915.

He participated on stage with the old Steubenville Players and in high school productions.

"The Steubenville Players provided an outlet for people who wanted a chance to perform, such as Sippy Hayman and Dick McGowan," Hatcher explained.

He said growing up in Steubenville had a positive effect on his career, and that every few years he likes to write something that is based on the city.

His portfolio of work includes the play "Compleat Female Stage Beauty," which tells the story of Edward Kynaston, a male actor who specialized in playing female roles in the later half of the 17th century. He also wrote the 2004 film adaptation that starred Billy Crudup, Claire Danes and Rupert Evert.

He also wrote the screenplay, with Kimberly Simi, for the 2005 film "Casanova," which starred Heath Ledger, Jeremy Irons, Oliver Platt and Sienna Miller.

His numerous stage credits include "Tuesdays with Morrie," which he co-wrote with Mitch Albom, the author of the best-selling book.

His also wrote three scripts for the "Columbo" detective series, two of which were produced.

Hatcher lives with his wife, Lisa Stevens, and their son, Evan, in the Minneapolis suburb of Wayzata, Minn.

(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, can be contacted at rgallabrese@heraldstaronline.com.)

 
 

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