Saturday, December 3, 2011

Ain't quite Misbehavin'

Robin Long, Lovely Hoffman, Davron S. Monroe, Lori Tishfield, and Calvin Braxton in Ain't Misbehavin'. Photo: Mark S. Howard.
You've probably already heard the news about the Lyric Stage's Ain't Misbehavin'; this edition of the venerable revue tries a little too hard for its own good, and so never achieves the happy, ribald ease of earlier versions seen at the North Shore and Trinity Rep.  The cast is certainly talented, but most of them read as a little young - and while Fats Waller wrote his wicked, knowing hits when he was in his twenties and thirties (he died at 39!), his best numbers go down best when sung by performers who exude a certain experience and maturity - and let's be honest, are of a certain size, too; a Fats Waller revue is one of those rare forums where a plus-size power mama can get as down and dirty as she wants to be, and half this cast is just too skinny, eager and cute!  It doesn't help that director/choreographer Josie Bray has removed the revue's traditional piano from the stage (okay, I guess it's still there - in a way - in David Towlun's elegant backdrop), and tried to fill the resulting void with lots of high-energy dance routines.  (Indeed, at times you half-expect Ben Vereen to jump in from the wings and make with the "jazz hands" - and that's just wrong!)

Still, what can I say; the cast is talented, and of course the material is great - Waller aficionados won't be satisfied with this version, but I think virgins will find it fun.  And the band is tight, the musical direction strong, and the cast is well-trained - they manage an exquisite five-part harmony, for instance, even though they're spread across the stage, in the mournful Black and Blue (at top) - probably this production's highlight.  There are other good moments, too - the show seems to warm up (and loosen up) as it goes along. Lovely Hoffman, who's most often at home in the material, brings a genuine broken heart to Mean to Me, for instance, and the versatile Davron S. Monroe slinks sleazily, if somewhat calculatedly, through The Viper's Drag/The Reefer Song.  And Robin Long brings a witty edge to Squeeze Me, while Lori Tishfield definitely gives Your Feet's Too Big everything she's got.  Meanwhile the effervescent Calvin Braxton does manage to sell every number - just by being a tireless dancer (he's surprisingly light on his feet) and an utterly determined entertainer.  Braxton's a bit innocently blank to conjure Fats himself, however - whose arched eyebrows and gleaming eyes always hinted at a brainy, bemused critique of the sated appetites his songs so often celebrated. There's just something too squeaky-clean about Braxton - and about the whole revue, in fact. Which may be why, though often diverting, this show ain't quite Misbehavin.'

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