Ain't Misbehavin'

Come for Act 2. Richard Maltby Jr. directed this music-bar revue of songs from the Fats Waller era, many composed by Waller, with words by a stream of lyricists, including Maltby Jr. Like the director, choreographer Arthur Faria has also returned from years-long involvement with the 1978 Broadway show to streamline this revival -- dwarfed somewhat by the Ahmanson' barn-like scale. The glitz of shimmering streams of small lights that rim the feet of stairways, or blast in an arc over John Lee Beatty's art deco set (lighting design by Pat Collins), only gets in the way. Music director William Foster McDaniel sits parked at a spinet that floats across the stage through the wonder of hydraulics. I found Act 1 insufferable, with the women in the five-actor ensemble overplaying the same bits of mock-jealousy and forced, girly eroticism, as though Malby Jr. adhered to the dubious principle that if a gag fails once, keep repeating it until it works. The interpretations of 15 songs in Act 1, including "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Squeeze Me," ranges from competent to painful, with the uber-effect of cheesiness stemming from the strain of forcing an intimate revue into the kind of overly broad performing style that it just can't accommodate. Act 2 is like a different show. The glitz recedes, and the style settles into something more earnest and simple - even the vaudeville bits, such as Eugene Barry-Hill's terrific rendition of "The Viper's Drag" in which he wobbles amidst jazzy crooning about the pleasures of reefer. Most of the act, however, is committed to blues and ballads, sung with emotional earnestness and simple tech support, with the help of the great eight-piece band behind them, and McDaniel on piano. The show is about the music and contains a wit that's far more savvy and wry than the style of humor in Act 1. The music also provides a mirror onto the ambitions and torments of people in the years before WWII. When the performers (also including Doug Eskew, Armelia McQueen, Roz Ryan and Debra Walton) are left alone to do what they do best, the show takes flight. The company turns "Black and Blue" into an ethereal quintet, accompanied only by the piano, that could be been plucked from a church service. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave.; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through May 31. (213) 638-4017 or www.centertheatregroup.org.
Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 & 8 p.m.; Sundays, 1 & 6:30 p.m. Starts: April 24. Continues through May 31, 2009


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