Actress E. Faye Butler’s friends and family know her first name is Elizabeth. If Northlight Theatre artistic director B. J. Jones’s instincts are right, by January, everyone else will assume the E stands for “Ella.”
Butler stars in the Chicago première of the musical Ella, previewing November 28th and opening December 5th at Northlight, about the life and music of Ella Fitzgerald. For a triple threat like Butler, the role is a perfect fit—especially because she’s played a jazz singer before.
Eight years ago, Butler made a huge theatrical splash on a multi-city tour playing the songstress Dinah Washington in Northlight’s Dinah Was. She won a Jeff Award for best leading actress in a Chicago musical, and her wide renown got her gigs as an artistic associate at both Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and Center Stage in Baltimore.
So when Northlight scored the Chicago première of the musical Ella, which had sold out theatres in its opening run two years ago at TheaterWorks in Connecticut, Jones was determined to woo Butler back home. They spent six months hashing out the schedule, and Jones heavily recruited her for the role. (“B. J. did everything but call my mother!” she says.) Now the Northlight production is already set to play Dallas after it closes here. “It’s heading in that same direction as Dinah Was,” Butler says.
Butler’s success means she spends much of the year performing out east. Between out-of-state gigs, she returns to the home she maintains in Chatham to spend time with her husband, who is a stylist at a hair salon, and the rest of her family, including her mother, now 80, and her 97-year-old grandmother, who both live in Rockford.
Ella Fitzgerald is an intimidating part, even for a seasoned actress—and even after playing Washington. “Dinah was an extremely colorful woman, a very controversial person in her period,” Butler says. “With Ella—well, she didn’t drink, she didn’t smoke, she didn’t gamble, she didn’t sleep around. She didn’t have a lot of tragedy or dirt going on in her life. With Dinah, you could take away the music and still tell her story. Ella’s life was her music, and that’s the story you’re telling.” Butler grew up listening to Fitzgerald improvise, but is she prepared to try to scat like that? “Of course I’m intimidated!” she admits with a little laugh. But, this being Butler, a confidence underlies her chuckle. “You can’t do Ella. You can’t reproduce her. What you can do is honor her.”
Ella runs Dec. 5th to Jan. 6th at Northlight Theatre (9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie; 847-673-6300, northlight.org).
Photograph: Selena Salfen; Hair: Antje Kastner at Tigerlilie Salon; Makeup: Ashley Vest; Wardrobe Stylist: Jennifer Salim