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In my earliest days as a theater critic, I covered for the volunteer reviewer at the Altadena Chronicle and thus was able to see the original cast of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” when they came to the old Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood. I fell in love, with the music of course, but even more with the characters this amazing cast was able to create without actually speaking more than ten words outside the songs themselves. It was magic, and those who give awards agreed.
I have searched during the decades since then for a production of this musical which can hold up a decent mirror to the original. I don’t expect a carbon copy – indeed, in general I argue against expecting any live theater to survive by refusing to do anything but what was done initially. Instead I continued to look for the same verve, the same sense of connection and, frankly, of everyone onstage having a blast, that had typified the original. It did not, apparently, translate well.
For a long time I thought it was simply that the Aquarius had been comparatively intimate, as are some Broadway theaters. Did a larger size of the space ruin the intimacy? The answer, I now know is that it does not. Thanks to the new production from McCoy-Rigby Entertainment, at the La Mirada Theatre, I now know it is the sense of ensemble, and of fun, which makes the show live no matter the height of the proscenium, or the size of the audience.
And live it does, in La Mirada, in the best production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” I have seen since the first one.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a salute to Thomas “Fats” Waller, both as a songwriter and as an extremely popular performer of other people’s music, as well as a comedic performer – a huge star in the 1930s and 40s. The five performers embrace his stride-piano jazz style, sing favorites which have entered the American songbook, silly bits from his work for Harlem clubs, and the occasional emotional punch in the gut with character and style, and build a sense of relationship along the way.
The way this show was structured gives a flow which makes its own drama. Highlights include such moments as Boise Holmes and Frenchie Davis crooning “Honeysuckle Rose” with just the right underscore of lascivious intent, or Thomas Hobson’s slippery “Viper’s Drag,” a salute to marijuana. A salute to the trials of life during World War II brings Davis, Amber Liekhus and Natalie Wachen together to dream of “When the Nylons Bloom Again”, while Holmes and Hobson join forces to cluck over a guy who’s “Fat and Greasy.”
They all join in on commentary regarding the compromises needed to play for white audiences while “ “Lounging at the Waldorf.” Then, suddenly, the company’s wrenchingly serious “Black and Blue” underscores the truth of stardom in an era of segregation and limited acceptance. Transitions like these make this show, and they are done well throughout.
This production is directed by Ken Page, a member of the original company who has been able to communicate that ensemble feel to the performers. Under his leadership, Davis handles the part originally performed by the great Nell Carter, and manages to find a balance between that legacy and her own ways of showing strength and humor.
Wachen does solid work with the most youthful and acrobatic of the women’s roles, while Liekhus turns the often underwhelming part – the sweet counterbalance to the more demanding edges of the others – into quite an interesting addition to the whole. The men are equally excellent, with Holmes offering depth and humor while Hobson offers a slightly slippery quality full of mystery. The interconnectedness of the ensemble proves totally engaging, and great fun.
Kudos to Jeffrey Polk for the choreography, and to Lanny Hartley, who leads a top notch live band from his onstage position as pianist – a position which makes him one of the characters in the ensemble as well. An important nod to costumer Shon LeBlanc, who manages to capture the feel of the original and – like the other creative forces involved – balance it with his own vision.
In short, this show is very, very good. If you have any interest in jazz from the first half of the 20th Century, or you love classic blues, or even just want to have a great time at the theater, run, do not walk, to get tickets to this “Ain’t Misbehavin’”. It’s not here for long, but you’ll regret not seeing it if you don’t find a way.
What: “Ain’t Misbehavin’” When: through October 8, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com
For the most part, this offers up a freshness, making a wittily familiar favorite something one can see through a new lens. Still, there is some unevenness to tighten up before it has all of the impact one could wish.
The essential story looks at a theater company about to start their out-of-town try-out of a new musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” The director, producer and star is a famed and rather pompous actor named Fred who has recruited the equally famous wife he divorced a year before to play Katherine, the female lead. Thus the edgy relationship between their characters onstage is reflected in an equal edginess offstage, with comic results. Meanwhile the secondary female, playing Bianca, hangs all over Fred while stringing along her longtime partner, whose gambling habit is about to get everyone in trouble.
Beginning with the blues/gospel styling of the iconic “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” the audience knows this production is going to be challenging its expectations. Jenelle Lynn Randall, as the leading lady’s dresser, grabs attention from the very first note. Merle Dandridge, as the obstinate Katherine, lives up to the romantic yet commanding part of the spurned lover ready for change, and sings the great “So In Love” from deep in her soul.
Joanna A. Jones makes a deliciously wicked Bianca, delighted in her own sexuality, while, as her partner, Terrance Spencer’s gee-whiz charm and muscular dancing make that couple’s moments on stage among the most entertaining. Also impressive as a dancer is Rogelio Douglas, Jr., whose “Too Darned Hot” with Randall provides the steamiest moment. Indeed, the entire company – ensemble most definitely included – puts their whole heart and soul into this undertaking with attractive results.
A special nod goes to John Iacovelli for a set which evokes period without becoming boxy, and to David K. Mickelsen for the colorful costumes which evoke the quasi-period feel and the color of old style Broadway musicals. These two help to keep the show in its own era: as a self-styled “American Negro Theater” production in the 1940s.
There are a couple of issues, however. The much-touted star, Wayne Brady, makes that central figure of the producer/actor/director extremely human, but almost too human, too sensitive. The character needs to be, at least when “on,” more of a figure of ego, capturing the stage with an almost larger-than-life quality. That would make his more human, more fragile private moments stand out. Here it all blends, which dilutes the energy of the piece – a situation not aided by a singing voice occasionally on the edge of flatness.
Also, though Jeffrey Polk’s choreography is lively and sometimes impressively athletic, its overt sexuality sometimes seems out of keeping with the time period portrayed. As example, why would an actress’ dresser strip down, mid-show, on opening night, in an alley?
Still, it is fun to see “Kiss Me Kate” again, and fascinating to see how small shifts here and there create a new underlying theme to the piece. And, of course, one more chance to hear that silly song, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is never amiss. Also, the opening of this production signals the unveiling of the new carpet and especially the new seats in the theater. That in itself is worthy of celebration.
What: “Kiss Me Kate” When: Through October 12, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $57 – $145 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org