Also see Richard's review of Travels With My Aunt
Director Michael Hamilton pulls one rabbit out of his hat after another, for the first 2/3rds of this nightclub-style revue, on a sleek art deco stage by James Wolk. But, by the middle of act two, we don't really need any more clever lighting tricks or dazzling "reveals" (although the lighting is clever, and the reveals are dazzling): for, in the home-stretch, we're just spellbound by the brainy, bouncy, hilarious cast of five singers/dancers, and their own amazing gifts.
The character names, including "Nell," (for the late Nell Carter), "Ken" (for St. Louisan Ken Page) and "Armelia "(McQueen), are mostly taken from the original performers in the New York production, which is a little bit of a shameMurray Horwitz and original director Richard Maltby Jr. developed the show for the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1978but what once celebrated the original cast now seems like a case of "identity theft" against all succeeding talents, as the (nearly non-existent) libretto makes fictionalized types of the first cast, passing their names down and refusing their equally talented successors any individualized distinction. Contractual obligations notwithstanding, I don't think it would kill anybody if future productions used their own current cast members' real names. And in that one, narrow respect it might seem a little less Disneyfied. Years ago, I was very saddened and troubled that an actress in a touring production of Beauty and the Beast spent all her time on stage, every night, devotedly re-creating Angela Lansbury's performance as a piece of crockery, in the same way that friends of mine have "imitated" stars in their youth, performing on stage at amusement parks. But Ain't Misbehavin' ain't no amusement park ride, baby.
Here, at least, the blazingly amazing Willena Vaughn understands when she "must be" Nell Carter, and when she can get away with "just being" Willena Vaughnwhich is every bit as good as Nell Carter, if not better. And, give credit to director Hamilton for not getting in her way, when she doesn't robotically devote herself to recreating a nearly 35-year-old performance, inch by inch. Calling performers in future productions of Ain't Misbehavin' would be more in line with the honest recreation of the jazz era we have here, and one little surprise I think we could all welcome.
But (as they say) I digress. It all starts with a lonesome upright piano on stage and, somehow, this seems to suggest a sentimental evening of folksy melodies with your kindly grandparents. And a lot of the music is full of lovely longing. But, even more of it is pure "Saturday night" fare, 80 years later. Still, the usual little old ladies of Kirkwood seemed to enjoy it very much. Which makes me wonder, what do they usually do on a Saturday night, anyway?
The harmonies are complex, lush and delicate, thanks to musical director Lisa Campbell Albert. And the humor races back and forth between scene-stealing, jealousy, and very bawdy comedy, with lots of haughtiness that's quickly punctured. Raena White and Willena Vaughn are worth the price of admission all by themselves in "Find Out What They Like." And Wendy Lynette Fox does something amazing that may be too easy to take for granted: seeming to be very much the dizzy chorus girl who slept her way to the top at one point; and then very expertly wooing us, too, as the silky-smooth chanteuse in "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now."
The two men, Dwelvan David and Eric LaJuan Summers, give us a cavalcade of wacky Vaudevillian moments throughout, which obviously includes plenty of good singing and dancing as well. Mr. Summers flirts mercilessly with the audience in "Viper's Drag," and Mr. David takes every comedic trick on the table in the memorable "Your Feet's Too Big." All of them look smashing in Lou Bird's costumes. There's even a nearly apocalyptic sense of melancholy in "Black and Blue," as the revelers are plunged into a kind of church-like reckoning of the soul (with even more stunning vocal arrangements) after all their wild times, right before the big finale. It's life, through the jazz lens.
Through July 1, 2012, at the Kirkwood Recreation Center, 111 South Geyer Rd., on the south side of the complex, in the Robert G. Reim Theatre. Reservations are strongly encouraged. For more information call (314) 821-2407 or visit them online at www.stagesstlouis.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the US.