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Behind Blue Eyes

Virginia Rep’s “Ella and Her Fella Frank” imagines a heavenly pairing.

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Watching baseball on TV in a Philadelphia bar, Scott Wichmann was pleased that his beloved Boston Red Sox were doing so well.

It was the third game of the 1999 American League Championship Series, billed as a showdown between Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens, but the Sox weren’t giving an inch to the New York Yankees. The phone at the bar rang. It was for Wichmann.

Handing the phone back to the bartender after the call, Wichmann shared the news he’d just received: “I’m Frank Sinatra.” His pronouncement baffled the bartender, but it was true: he’d just been cast as Ol’ Blue Eyes in an upcoming revue at Barksdale Theatre’s Willow Lawn stage.

Then 26, Wichmann had done a few shows in Richmond, but had yet to truly break into the local theater market. That call from Randy Strawderman, then the artistic director of Barksdale, would change everything.

Despite his misgivings about Wichmann’s age for the part – and making him audition six times – Strawderman eventually cast him as the Chairman of the Board in his new show “Ella and Her Fella Frank,” a musical revue that imagined Sinatra had to beat Ella Fitzgerald in a singing competition to gain entry to heaven. The show not only jump-started Wichmann’s theater career in Richmond, but led to an avocation performing as Sinatra.

“It was a huge thing for me, because it was the first thing I can remember wanting badly that I felt I was right for,” says Wichmann, who has since won numerous awards, including best actor in a musical for his multiple roles in 2019’s “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”

Starting July 9, a heavily revised version of the show will take the stage at Virginia Rep’s November Theatre. Culled to a breezy 75 minutes and directed by Katrinah Carol Lewis, Virginia Repertory Theatre’s interim co-artistic director, this rendering loses the backup dancers of the original but beefs up its band. Wichmann explains the revisions this way: “Larger band, shorter show, more judicious song choices.”

The revival was sparked by Strawderman’s death after a long illness last year at the age of 71. A dancer, choreographer, director and playwright, Strawderman wowed Richmond audiences for decades, including with “Red, Hot & Cole,” a retrospective of songwriter and composer Cole Porter.

Bo Wilson, who rewrote “Ella,” says this version is less about Sinatra attempting to gain entrance into heaven than dealing with the void and isolation of the afterlife. Though the pandemic is never mentioned, Wilson says the revival wrestles with its lingering effects.

“We wanted a show that would be about ridding ourselves of the shackles of COVID,” says Wilson, a local playwright, actor and director who won a Richmond Theatre Critics Circle award for best direction of a play for 2009’s “Shining City.” “We’ve all gone a little crazy in our homes. We’ve all gone a little nuts from isolation.”

In the original Barksdale production – Barksdale and Theatre IV merged in 2012 to form Virginia Rep – Fitzgerald was portrayed by jazz singer René Marie, then known as René Croan, who has since received two Grammy nominations. In a short-lived second incarnation of the show in North Carolina in 2001, the role was taken up by Desirée Roots, who has since performed numerous times as the First Lady of Song.

To coincide with Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday, Roots wrote and performed the show “Ella at 100” alongside Wichmann as Sinatra and other performers playing Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole. Now renamed “Forever Ella,” Roots still performs the show around the state.

Roots, who will play Fitzgerald again in this show, says one of the biggest challenges of portraying the Newport News native was learning to scat sing with confidence.

“If you’re going to be Ella, you’ve got to embrace it,” says Roots, who won a Critics Circle award for best actress in a musical for 2015’s “Caroline, or Change.” “Ella looked at herself not just as a vocalist, but as another instrument.”

Even though the show’s original run was so long ago it took place during the Y2K scare – and when placing a call to a bar to find someone was still common – Wichmann says he still gets stopped by strangers for this role.

“I’ll be in the grocery store and someone will say, ‘We just love “Ella and her Fella.” When is Virginia Rep going to do that again?’”

Virginia Rep’s “Ella and Her Fella Frank” plays July 9 to Sept. 12 at the November Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. For information, call 804-282-2620 or visit va-rep.org.

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