‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ ”
Arkansas Repertory Theatre
Balky microphones and an overall weak sound system aside, the Rep’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” is a rousing production with good to terrific performances by the five-person cast and some lively, and occasionally suggestive, songs. The Rep made a good call earlier this year in bringing “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” into its schedule.
Most of the show’s songs were either written by or made famous by great stride pianist Thomas “Fats” Waller. Most are toe-tapping; some are heart-breaking and soul-stirring, like “Mean to Me” and “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.”
Waller, a lusty musician who drank himself to death at age 39 in 1943, managed to nevertheless leave a legacy of songs. “Ain’t Misbehavin’, ” which won a Tony Award for best musical in 1978, is a calvacade of songs staged in various settings of the early 1940s with the five African-American singers together and solo. Younger listeners unschooled in the Waller style should learn to appreciate one of America’s great early jazz composers.
The title track is well-known outside the musical, but the highlights for us Sunday were all of Roberta Thomas’ numbers, most especially “Mean to Me” and “Cash for Your Trash,” Kenney M. Green’s “The Viper (“The Reefer Song”) and Stanley White singing “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Green was the consumate performer tapping, singing and acting his way through a marvelous performance, and all three women displayed amazing pipes as well as great comedic timing — notably Cynthia Thomas in “Squeeze Me” and Karla Beard in “Yacht Club Swing.”
Director Ron Hutchins showed a steady hand through most of this just-over-two-hours show, but allowed White to go over the top during “Honeysuckle Rose.” White had mic trouble early on and didn’t quite have the range to handle the “Jitterbug Waltz” duet, but he was superb in the second act. The entire group, which had finished a matinee three hours earlier, seemed to get into the second act and had the crowd hand-clapping to several numbers, including “The Joint Is Jumpin’ ” and “Fat and Greasy.”
Period costumes are dead-on, and Mike Nichols’ set is perfect, as we’ve come to expect. Pianist Phillip Hall and his band of five local musicians provide outstanding back up music.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” continues through June 5. Call 378-0405 for tickets.
— By Jim Harris