Addison’s WaterTower Theatre kicks off its 25th season with a reimagined experience of jazz vocalist and scat virtuoso Ella Fitzgerald’s holiday album, “Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas.”
North Texas performer Feleceia Benton Wilson, 37, sings all but one song off of the 18-track album. She said it was an honor to pay tribute to the “First Lady of Song.”
“I asked my husband ‘Do you think I can pull this off’,” said Benton Wilson, while laughing. “I’ve listened to Ella for a really long time. My sister gave me my first Ella record when I was 12 years old.”
The 1960 album is Fitzgerald’s only compilation of Christmas songs on Verve Records, a label home to many jazz singers.
Benton Wilson will perform “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Jingle Bells,” Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Good Morning Blues” and more. She performs alongside a trio of musicians, Kwinton Gray (piano), KJ Gray (upright bass) and Jackie Whitmill (percussion).
Amid the pandemic, WaterTower Theatre is one of several arts groups transitioning its live theater to digital screens. So, this year the holiday production will be pre-recorded and features a cozy splash of the 1960s.
Benton Wilson said because of the pandemic she didn’t need to audition. Because of COVID, many theater can’t hold traditional auditions. And Benton Wilson’s been a working actor in North Texas for more than 17 years, so she got the gig because of connections.
“Theaters have to make up what they do as they go along,” Benton Wilson said. “Between the constraints that come with both performing and rehearsing and all of those things, they are also having to deal with contractual agreements . . . which means they don’t have the opportunity to build auditions into their programming.”
This year, the rehearsal process was completely different. For the one-woman show, Benton Wilson rehearsed for nearly two weeks and then recorded the production. All music was learned by ear because there is no sheet music for the album.
“We were putting it together while we were putting it together,” Benton Wilson said. “Every theater is trying to figure it out for their own specific place, so it does make it very special.”
In November, WaterTower Theatre launched a fundraising campaign called Sustain the Mission. Its purpose is to keep the theater alive through the pandemic. For its 25th season, from Oct. 2020 to Sept. 2021, the theater hopes to raise $100,000.
“WaterTower is — like most other arts organizations — working hard to ensure we survive the pandemic and its effect on our organization, while at the same time focusing on creative ways to continue to deliver professional theater to you.” producing artistic director Shane Peterman said in a statement.
For Benton Wilson, the production speaks to the times. While there’s more opportunity for creativity, she said the toll on the arts community is nothing like she’s seen before. But at least now, she gets to share her work with her family and friends outside of North Texas.
“It’s a good time to put some money in organizations if we want to see them sustained into the new year and beyond,” Benton Wilson said. “And you get to share music that maybe you have heard or loved in the past — you get to share it with your family during this time.
The nearly hour-long Ella’s Swinging Christmas: A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald concert will be available until midnight on Jan. 3.
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