February 14, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The term “diva” has taken a bit of a hit in recent years, suggesting to some a haughty I-want-it-all-and-want-it-now scene chewer who treats other humans like varmints.

For most, though, the word remains untarnished. The diva is still the shining star, the bigger-than-life glory who commands a room while displaying elegance and charity beyond the bright lights.

Kathy Tyree is most certainly the latter type of diva.

So, too, was Ella Fitzgerald, the legendary jazz diva who Tyree will shape-shift into for Ella, which opens at the Omaha Community Playhouse on February 28.

“Ella Fitzgerald was every bit the good diva, a marvelous performer,” Tyree says during an interview at a mid-town coffee shop. “My job is to channel my inner diva. But I think I’ve earned my diva stripes. It’s an immense challenge, but I feel I’m up to the challenge.”

“She brought the house down in Hairspray. She’s going to bring the house down again.”
— Susie Collins

Tyree has more than earned those stripes in 30-some years of powerhouse singing throughout the region. She is arguably Omaha’s premier cabaret singer. Among numerous other roles, she played Aretha Franklin in Beehive, widely considered the longest-running show in the city’s history.

That show’s director, Gordon Cantiello, says he’s confident that Tyree is “by all means a big-time diva in the good way.

“The other girls in Beehive had to work hard to keep up with her,” Cantiello says. “She commands a room. She’s 110 percent all the time. She’s a director’s dream.”

Susie Collins, who will be directing Ella, agrees and adds that Tyree “has a very special, powerful way of expressing herself through her music.”

“It actually goes deeper than the biographies that have been written about her. There are just some topics you didn’t talk about back then that are discussed more openly now.”
—Kathy Tyree

And yes, she said, Tyree can command a room like a true diva. She did just that in a Playhouse production last summer. “She brought the house down in Hairspray,” Collins continues. “She’s going to bring the house down again.”

Ella is a new challenge for Tyree in that, for one, “there are an immense number of lines to learn.” The one-woman musical is “a very honest and open look at her life.” The musical goes far beyond the music.

Set in Nice, France, in 1966, Fitzgerald’s manager suggests she engage in more banter with her audience—a fashion for singers at the time. Her conversations on and off the stage through the musical increasingly delve into deeply personal topics, including the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands 
of her stepfather.

“In shows like this you can get a script that’s kind of glued in there—that’s very forced,” Collins explains. “You have a very skilled playwright here [Jeffrey Hatcher]. The script is just excellent.”

“It actually goes deeper than the biographies that have been written about her,” Tyree says. “There are just some topics you didn’t talk about back then that are discussed more openly now.”

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At the show’s heart, though, is the music and the larger-than-life voice and presence of the diva.

“The diva develops her own style out of her own personality,” Tyree says. “Ella Fitzgerald was uniquely Ella. A diva is the only person who sounds the way they do. You know immediately who is singing when you hear the voice.”

Tyree has built her own personal style from many influences. In some cases, she’s standing on some unlikely shoulders.

You might guess she was first inspired by the towering voices and personalities of Diana Ross and Lena Horne. Aretha Franklin, sure. Cher, who Tyree loves for her versatility. Luther Vandross. So smooth.

But Mick Jagger? Really?

“He’s always going—so passionate,” she says. “I love what he does with a song.”

And Rod Stewart?

“I love performers who are sincere and real,” she says. “That passion is authentic.”

Ella Fitzgerald, she says, was one of those sincere, genuine, authentic, and passionate singers who brought her best each night to her performance and her audience.

That’s what Tyree wants for every second she spends on stage as Ella Fitzgerald.

“I’d like to think I have my own style, so it’s interesting to work to channel Ella Fitzgerald—try to take on her unique style,” Tyree says. “What’s not at all different is that burning desire to give the audience everything you have. Ultimately, a diva wants to give the audience something to remember. So we’re going to work to give the audience something to remember.”