“Ain’t Misbehavin’” Mostly Struts Its Stuff
One of the most iconic shows to feature songs by Fats Waller and music from the Harlem Renaissance is back in town, lighting up the stage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. With a great song selection and fantastic choreography by Julia Lema, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” has some great moments, but opening night suggests there are still some issues to work out.
Thomas “Fats” Waller had a career that ranged from Tin Pan Alley in the 20’s, to Black cinema masterpieces such as “Stormy Weather,” and church organ music. Waller, who died young at 36, is credited with over 400 songs, many of them made into hits by the major Jazz singers of his day. In addition to being a major figure on the Jazz scene, Waller was a consummate pianist, popularizing a style called “stride piano,” aptly explained in the show as the left hand holding down the beat while the right hand swings the melody.
Probably one of the most complex musical reviews to stage, “Ain’t Misbehavin” features a wide range of Waller’s work from the energetic ensemble piece, “The Joint is Jumpin’” to the bittersweet ballad, “Mean to Me,” here, a lovely, evocative rendition by Anise Ritchie.
Set against a spare but effective keyboard arch by Marty Burnett and directed by veteran of the Broadway run of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Yvette Freeman (now in “Orange in the New Black,”) the show is fast-paced with a live ensemble and a pianist (Kevin Toney), that give the show its swinging nightclub sound.
But the numbers in “Ain’t Misbehavin” are demanding and it takes a vocally and physically flexible cast to pull it off the way it should be. While opening night had its gorgeous moments such as “The Jitterbug Waltz” and the well-executed ensemble piece, “Anything But Love,” the cast has some kinks to work out. Some of the voices couldn’t deliver the low notes while the high notes in other songs approached much too carefully and got lost en route.
Julia Lema’s choreography, was beautifully laid out, and yet in the exuberant “The Joint is Jumping,” left some of the cast almost gasping for breath.
Act II flowed much better than Act I, with voices more on pitch and less strident. Ron Christopher Jones (Andre)’ “The Viper’s Drag” about a hophead, was a revelation. Down and dirty, it had a delicious darkness that stands as a stark contrast to the rest of the songs.
Cynthia Thomas as Armelia, has a beautifully controlled voice that shines in several numbers, including the WWII tune, “When Nylons Bloom Again.” Yvonne (Charlene), a recent SDSU graduate, looking like a young Whitney Houston, plays the ingénue to the hilt, taking off on “Yacht Club Swing.”
Tony Perry (Ken) carries much of the humor of the show and keeps his numbers hopping. His turn in “Honeysuckle Rose” and the comedic “Your Feets Too Big” is sharp and well played.
While most of the song list dates from the snappy and sometimes novelty heavy 20’s and 30’s repertoire, Waller was no stranger to the indignities and improprieties of segregation and performance spaces where he headlined on stage but entered through the service door. Waller had a reputation as a sly and astute commentator and his songs, including several in this review, show it.
For an audience circa 1978, when the show first started, the subtle irony in songs like “Lounging at the Waldorf,” known as one of the most segregated hotels in New York pre-1950, would have been more than obvious. However, in 2016, these ironies, especially in North County, may not have the same resonance. As such, the show’s version of “Lounging at the Waldorf,” while fun and energetic, missed a major chance to heighten the sub-text of a song whose surface is sparkly and fun, but whose message is deeper than sequins and salads.
The show also missed a similar chance with “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue.” Waller’s song was originally written for singer Edith Wilson in 1929, and made a hit by Blues singer Ethel Waters. Again, context and era are everything. Waters sang it with a certain politely controlled sorrow, but everyone knew what she meant. By the time the great Lena Horne sang it on US television, the gloves were off and the elegant anger and deep hurt became part of the reading.
But in this production, “Black and Blue” approaches the plaintive, polite almost apologetic tones of “Mean to Me.” The ensemble work was excellent, but given both recent events and the absence of the need not to unduly upset a White audience, “Black and Blue” needs its message foregrounded, not prettied up and made to sit with its legs crossed.
That said, most of the numbers were fun, familiar pieces performed with verve. The sets were spare but elegant, and the ensemble accompanying the show was tight, on the mark and clean, tucked away as they were in an alcove somewhat above the stage.
Over all, the show is a fun romp through some of the best of the American songbook written by a man who knew his times and knew how to keep the joint jumping while chronicling the joys and sorrows of the human condition.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” runs through August 7, 2016. Due to demand, extra shows have been added. Please see North Coast Repertory Theatre’s website for times and ticket information: http://www.northcoastrep.org