But then there's the second act. Things start to move when Eugene Barry-Hill sets off on "The Viper's Drag" and "The Reefer Song"with an absolutely captivating performance which is the very model of how a single performer dominates a stage and grasps an audience. Every slither and gesture is a combination of grace and danger, holding the audience mesmerized. The show is then handed off to Roz Ryan, whose rendition of "Mean to Me" is the exact opposite of what we'd just seen, as Ryan plants herself in a spotlight and doesn't so much as move a finger, and yet she is just as dominating, keeping the audience fully involved with nothing but her emotional vocal.
With those two performances, Ain't Misbehavin' breaks through its cloak of mundanity, and truly engages the audience. Once it has done so, it doesn't really let go until the end of the show. Funny songs, like Doug Eskew's take on "Your Feet's Too Big," earn smiles and laughs. Armelia McQueen has a splendid "tough broad" turn in "That Ain't Right." And Debra Walton puts an entire story in "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now," as her voice reflects the transition from playful girl to adult in love.
And then, the company then comes together for a moving "Black and Blue," a plaintive cry against racism, and a reminder that all of the joy in the music we've just heard came from a time of shameful ugliness. What had started off as another revue easily dismissed has transformed itself into true theatre, entertaining, challenging, stirring, and bringing down the house. This production takes way too long to get going, but once it finally does, it is quality theatre.
Ain't Misbehavin' runs at the Ahmanson through May 31, 2009. For tickets and information see www.centertheatregroup.org.
Center Theatre GroupMichael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Directorpresents Ain't Misbehavin'the Fats Waller Musical Show. Conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz; Created and Originally Directed by Richard Maltby, Jr.; Original Choreography and Musical Staging by Arthur Faria; Musical Adaptations, Orchestrations & Arrangements by Luther Henderson. Vocal and Music Concepts by Jeffrey Gutcheon; Musical Arrangements by Jeffrey Gutcheon & William Elliott; Scenic Design John Lee Beatty; Original Costume Design Randy Barcelo; Costume Design Re-creation and Additional Costume Design Gail Baldoni; Lighting Design Pat Collins; Sound Design Tom Morse; Wig Design Gerard Kelly; Vocal Supervisor Debra Byrd; Casting Erika Sellin; Production Stage Manager David S. Franklin; Associate Producer Ann E. Wareham; Supervising Music Director William Foster McDaniel; Choreography and Musical Staging for this Production Arthur Faria; this Production Directed by Richard Maltby, Jr.
Photo: Craig Schwarz