Review of 'Ain't Misbehavin' ' at the Ahmanson Theatre
You’re stressed, I’m stressed, the economy is in tatters and who knows what scary news the future might bring. OK, everyone, time for a Fats Waller break. “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” opened Friday at the Ahmanson Theatre, and the effect is like an intoxicating combination of a dry martini and a dirty joke, savored over the sassiest Depression-era jazz.
I certainly wasn’t expecting to be as uplifted as I was from this trotting out of Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz’s 1978 revue in honor of composer, musician and comedic entertainer Thomas “Fats” Waller, the invisible presence behind the bawdy tunes and raucous merry-making. But to borrow one of Waller’s signature grammar-mutinying lines, “One never knows, do one?” (Waller collaborated with lyricists, but he was pretty good with a quip.)
The company, which includes five performers of varying degrees of corporeal plenitude, may lack high-wattage star power, but this is an undeniably smooth blend of distinctive talents. Of course one can’t help missing the late great Nell Carter, whose trumpeting swank and jiggling grace will forever be associated with the show, but original cast member Armelia McQueen has returned in purring form. And it’s hard to imagine anyone not appreciating the assured yet unostentatious vocal styles on display, to say nothing of the wide-ranging definitions of sex appeal.
Let’s doff a derby to Waller for letting us see the beauty in bountiful proportions. All that excess weight will put a strain on the heart, but bigger can sometimes be better, especially when slithering to such naughty gems as “Cash for Your Trash” (belted by Roz Ryan) and “Find Out What They Like” (commandeered by Ryan and McQueen).
Which isn’t to say that skinny doesn’t have its seductive moments. Debra Walton may be relatively slight, but she cuts a big impression in “How Ya Baby.” No, her flesh doesn’t undulate with the same oceanic force, but her wild purse-swinging expands her hypnotic circumference. And when she sings “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” you hope she really doesn’t mean it.
Eugene Barry-Hill makes a mighty meal out of “The Viper’s Drag” and “The Reefer Song,” taking his time with this second act sequence as he taunts audience members with flashes of tongue and promises he’s not sure he’ll keep. Doug Eskew similarly doesn’t stop at innuendo — in “Honeysuckle Rose” he practically diagrams every shade of lusty meaning. These able fellows get the job entertainingly done.
“ ’T Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do” was the first song recorded by Waller, and it sums up his defiant attitude toward conventional morality. Yet nothing tickled him so much as hypocrites, and he made a specialty of sending up all those phony baloneys who loved to put on aristocratic airs.
But Waller’s raison d’être was showing the world that, bad as things were, it was all right to have a good time. Life’s unfair, especially if your skin isn't white, as “Black and Blue” stunningly reminds us, but when the onstage orchestra blasts “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” who would choose to wallow in bitterness and grief?
Kudos to musical director and onstage pianist William Foster McDaniel for the show’s overall lush sound. Arthur Faria’s choreography slides chins and buttocks with as much grace as dancing feet. And the design team of John Lee Beatty (sets), Pat Collins (lights) and Gail Baldoni (costumes, based on Randy Barcelo’s originals) create a colorful nightclub ambience.
In some ways “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” represents the road too little taken by contemporary jukebox musicals. There’s no soggy bio-drama, recapping Waller’s struggles and early death at age 39, to dampen the verve. Here, the meaning of a life is conveyed through impish jazz rather than sentimental claptrap. Not that hardship doesn’t come into the picture — it’s just that nearly every moment is filled with the urge to transcend the all-too-real blues with a compulsive beat.
OK, the second act could use some tightening, there are lulls that are unavoidable when you’re stringing one number after another and the multi-song finale seems to follow the law of diminishing returns.
No, the show ain’t perfect. But I appreciated this production’s low-key confidence, the authentic camaraderie of the cast and the way it succeeds in wresting us momentarily from our cares and woes. The parallels between our age and the late ’20s and ‘30s of Waller’s prime are only too obvious. More the reason for “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around.”
-- Charles McNulty
"Ain't Misbehavin'," Ahmanson Theatre,135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Call for exceptions. Ends May 31. $20 to $100. (213) 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
Photo: At top,Doug Eskew, Armelia McQueen, Debra Walton, Roz Ryan and Eugene Barry-Hill. At bottom,Walton and Barry-Hill. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu / Los Angeles Times