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Alexis J. Roston brings Ella Fitzgerald to life on the Laguna Playhouse stage

By MARRIE STONE

For more than half a century, Ella Fitzgerald held audiences spellbound as the most popular woman in jazz. She won 14 Grammy Awards and sold more than 40 million albums over her near 60-year career, earning her the title “The First Lady of Song.” 

Although Fitzgerald has been gone for 25 years, there’s one voice that brings her back. Showbiz Chicago says Alexis J. Roston “holds the audience in the palm of her hand” and Time Out Chicago calls her “phenomenal.” The award-winning star has portrayed Billie Holiday in multiple productions of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, which won her Chicago’s Jeff Award and Black Theatre Alliance Award. She’s also played Whoopi Goldberg, Dionne Warwick and a variety of acting roles on stage. But when Roston channels her childhood icon, Ella Fitzgerald, she really shines. 

She takes the Laguna Playhouse stage beginning this Wednesday, March 2. The show runs through March 20. Fans will hear favorites like “Summertime,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” 

Roston spent some time with me last week talking about her early musical inspirations, roles that defined her career and how she inhabits these very different women. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Alexis J. Roston 1

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Courtesy of Artists Lounge Live

Alexis J. Roston stars in “First Lady of Song: The Songs of Ella Fitzgerald” at the Laguna Playhouse 

Stu News: It’s always fun to hear how stars are born. Talk about your childhood and how music played a role in those early years. 

Alexis Roston: My mother claims I’ve been singing since I got here. She said by the time the doctor picked me up and slapped me on the butt, I was already wailing. 

My parents loved listening to music. I grew up listening to so much music, especially jazz. But they didn’t discriminate. They played blues, jazz, gospel. My mother loved blues and my dad loved jazz, so I didn’t have a choice but to get it into my system. I grew up listening to Billie [Holiday], Ella [Fitzgerald], Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin. These are core memories, listening to the greats. 

From the time I was a baby, weekends were reserved for playing music in my home. My mom was a teacher and my dad was a pipe fitter, so they worked hard all week. But the weekend – music, music, music, music, music. The record player played all weekend. To this day, I will not be without a record player. It’s a sound that I just adore. 

SN: When did music shift from a passion to a career?

AJR: My mom took me to see Mama, I Want to Sing! [a 1983 musical based on the life and times of African American singer Doris Troy] when I was little. I saw a young lady who reflected me on stage, and I thought, That’s it. That’s what I’m doing. I never turned back. 

SN: Your mother sounds so supportive.

AJR:  My mom took me to all the theaters when I was a kid. She took me to Broadway to see shows. We saw everything around Chicago. When we saw that musical, I was smitten. 

SN: You must have been singing in church and school choirs all the way through? 

AJR: Absolutely. I sang in the church choir. Somewhere around grade five, I began singing in the Chicago All-City Youth Chorus, an award-winning choir. I performed with the Kenwood Academy Concert Choir throughout middle school and high school. We traveled and won awards for singing. 

I’ve always been immersed in performing. When my mom saw I was gifted in the arts, she did everything in her power to foster that. I remember standing on the stage at the high school where she taught, singing for a talent showcase. People were throwing money on the stage. I didn’t flinch much while I was performing, but I remember being so excited to count all that money. You can’t forget stuff like that. It will influence your choices going forward.

SN: No kidding! So most of your life and career have been spent in Chicago?

AJR: Pretty much. At 6 years old, I visited Howard University with my aunt. I said that day, “This is where I’m going to school.” It’s the only place I applied. I went to Howard and majored in musical theater, and I got my BFA there. I lived in Baltimore before I came back to Chicago. But once I got home, Chicago was my town. Two weeks after I got back, I already had a gig and I’ve been working in Chicago ever since.

Alexis J. Roston 2

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Courtesy of Artists Lounge Live

Alexis J. Roston has performed for more than 20 years 

SN: Talk about how your career path worked. You earned a BFA, and then you found an agent? 

AJR: I had an agent before I got out of school. My mentor brought agents to our senior showcase. I had two agents – in both LA and New York – before I graduated. I had two Broadway auditions before I walked the stage to get my diploma. I was literally booked for two years before I graduated college.

However, somewhere during that time, I had a spiritual awakening and left theater completely. But I wrote plays for my church. My pastor commissioned me to write a play called Redemptive Power and we performed it for an outreach program. I’d never seen this huge church so full of people. They were hanging over the balcony and crowded in the aisles – there were so many people. Built into the play was an altar call. When the altar call happened, people actually came to the altar. Something like 10 people gave their lives to God that day. 

Even though I wasn’t professionally doing theater, I felt fulfilled. God let me know, Girl, I’m still here working with you. It was a surreal and beautiful moment. My knees got weak when I saw the first person walking toward the altar. Then they started coming in droves. I remember somebody catching me because I felt so overwhelmed. God gave me this play to write, so I was using my gift to help people. 

SN: What an experience! So once you made it back to Chicago and immersed yourself in musical theater, talk about some of those highlight roles over the years. 

AJR: I love playing Whoopi Goldberg characters. I’ve twice played Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Act. My husband played Curtis in one production. Then I played Oda Mae Brown in Ghost. I’ve done The Color Purple twice, but I’ve never played Celie. Hopefully I won’t age out of the role before it comes around to me. I’m going to give it to the universe and let the universe decide. But it is definitely on my wish list.

SN: Talk about the experience of playing Ella.

AJR: Playing Ella Fitzgerald is surreal to me. Angela and Michael Ingersoll heard about me after I won a Jeff Award for playing Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson Bar and Grill. By the time we met, I was doing a show called Don’t Make Me Over, a tribute to Dionne Warwick. They came to see that and proposed this Ella Fitzgerald show. 

I grew up listening to Ella. Her voice is unmatched. There’s not another and I don’t imagine there will ever be another. I’ve heard some amazing artists and they’re great. But there will never be another Ella. 

So, naturally, it seemed like the most daunting thing in the world for me. However, I joined a show that put together three huge personalities – Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland and Patsy Cline – and we had a show called I Got a Right to Sing the Blues. That was my introduction to singing Ella’s music. It went well, so they asked if I would have my own Ella show. 

It’s been such a blessing to play Ella and sing her songs. I’ve been able to travel. I’ve been able to bless young and old generations, and everyone in between because this music is timeless. Ella was joy personified. It makes me so happy to bridge the gap between the generations with this amazing music.

Fans are over the moon when they walk out the door. It’s 90 minutes of music, but I also introduce people to a side of Ella they may not know. For me, when I admire an artist and discover how wonderful they were in everyday life, it makes me so happy. I hate to hear somebody I love was labeled a troublemaker, or mean, or hard to work with. Ella was a ball of joy. It’s bittersweet because you hear the trials and triumphs in her music. But, overall, her story is one of triumph. 

I’m walking this earth, being able to play these great women. I’m just so grateful. 

Alexis J. Roston 3

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Courtesy of Artists Lounge Live

Roston has inhabited such musical icons as Dionne Warwick, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald

SN: Whoopi Goldberg, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald are all so different. Talk about connecting with these women and transforming yourself into such different personas.

AJR: As far as Whoopi is concerned, we know her to be a brilliant actress, but also an iconic comedian. I think I’m funny. Most people who know me and love me think I’m hilarious. So I tapped into my funny bone when it came to Whoopi. I do have some comedy experience. I do improv. I was trained at Second City, so I have some knowledge behind this self-proclaimed funniness. But I’ve always been a ham, and so I draw from the funniness of Whoopi. 

With Billie, you hear accounts from people who were close to her that she had the biggest heart. I love helping people. I love to make people happy. That was a through-line with Billie. She loved to make people happy, probably because she had such a tumultuous life. But she owned all of that so gracefully at a time when people were denying her. I draw from Billie’s strength and love that she gave to others. 

Ella was J-O-Y personified. I’m not a walking ball of joy like Ella may have been, but bringing joy and light, giving love, those things are important to me. I associate Ella with joy, so I try my best to bring it. Let’s say you had a bad day, or you’re going through a bad situation. I’ll let you vent, but then I help you move on because it doesn’t serve you to allow you to stay in that place. I’m generally that person that thrives on bringing the joy out of something. 

I also try to focus on truth – being truthful and honest in my approach to everything. I think that’s allowed me to have such a long career, because I’m real. People think musical theater is fake or phony. But I always try to find the heart and soul – the pulse – of the thing. I’m 45 years old and I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. That authenticity has given me such longevity in my career. 

SN: I think theater is one of the more emotionally truthful mediums. If it wasn’t, people wouldn’t connect with it. There’s got to be some deeper truth or audiences won’t show up.

AJR: Exactly.

SN: Are there things about Ella Fitzgerald that people would be surprised to learn?

AJR: Absolutely, but I don’t know if I want to give it away. As I’m telling her stories, people audibly respond. They’re always shocked to know some of the things Ella went through because, again, people associate her with always being so happy. They only saw joy. To know where she came from and to know where she ended up – it’s a humongous rags-to-riches story and it’s a huge inspiration.

SN: I wonder if that’s what makes her music endure. She experienced the full range of human emotions and went through these extreme experiences. It came through in her music, which speaks from living a full life. 

AJR: Absolutely. Ella’s escape was music. Singing allowed her to thrive at a time when she was being stepped on. She escaped and she took us with her. I can’t hear her and still be concerned with the cares of this world. When you listen to her, you go to a different place altogether. That speaks volumes to the power that Ella had within her. Aside from how amazing her voice sounds, the power inside her and the love for what she did shines through.

Alexis J. Roston 4

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Courtesy of Artists Lounge Live

Roston brings both integrity and authenticity to every role she plays. She also channels the personality traits and spirit of the women she inhabits.

SN: Do you have advice for young women going into this industry? 

AJR: Be sure you want it. Research the industry. Research the area you’re drawn to and find out who excelled in it. Find out who didn’t. Read stories, because it looks glamorous and wonderful, but there’s a lot that goes into performing. 

Eight shows a week is grueling. It’s not an easy feat. A prime example is Fantasia [Barrino], one of my favorite singers. She played Celie in The Color Purple, but she doesn’t come from a theater background. She comes from the music industry. So when she got the role, she missed a lot of shows because she didn’t have the stamina. It’s one thing to do a tour, play a weekend here or a week there. But eight shows a week is a whole other beast. You have to endure and sustain every single night, twice a day sometimes. I’ve been doing this a long time, so I’m accustomed to it now, but it’s hard. 

I would tell young people to research the business aspect of it. When I went to Howard, they didn’t call it “show business,” they called it “business show” because business had to come first. 

SN: What personality trait do you feel made you so successful, aside from your talent?

AJR: The Golden Rule. Treat people how you want to be treated. My relationships in this business come from just that. I put the effort forward to care about my audience members. We’re in a rough world right now, and people have stopped caring about each other. Because I care about my audience and their experience, I’ll turn down work that’s not suitable for me. I consider myself to be a good steward over my gift because I’m dedicated to producing great work. There are people who take roles that swallow them alive because they didn’t consider the costs. They only saw it as a resume builder. But if you’re not fit for it, it will ultimately make you look bad. So I make good choices and won’t take every role. 

SN: What’s an example of a role you might turn down. 

AJR: I was recently offered an ensemble part. It’s not that I’m above an ensemble part, but I stand up for myself in this business which is also very important. I’ve been in theater at least 23 years. At this juncture, I respectfully declined it and I told them why. Their response was, “We’d love to find a way to feature you. What roles would you like to play?” That’s a testament to the talent and to my dedication to the craft. 

SN: With everything the world is going through – and our country is going through – is there anything you can say about the importance of live music and this style of joyful music at this particular time? 

AJR: It’s very important right now that we do everything in our power to bring some life back to our dying world. This show is one of those vehicles by which I can do that. 

This show is all about happiness, joy, peace and love. That’s what I want people to get these days. This pandemic has caused us to be separated. And in our separation, ugly, nasty, evil things have come up in the world. We didn’t see this ugliness as pronounced prior to the pandemic, but we see it now. I want to use this show as a vessel to bring us back to being one. We need to get back to fellowshipping and connecting with one another. My hope is we start finding the common thread between us. We’re all in this together. It’s up to us to make life great, not only for ourselves, but for our future and the people coming behind us. I’m praying we find our way back together again. 

Alexis J. Roston 5

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Courtesy of Artists Lounge Live

Alexis J. Roston stars in “First Lady of Song: The Songs of Ella Fitzgerald” at the Laguna Playhouse from March 2 through March 20. 

The First Lady of Song: Alexis J. Roston Sings Ella Fitzgerald runs from March 2 through March 20. For tickets and information about the show, visit the Laguna Playhouse website at www.lagunaplayhouse.com.