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REVIEW: "AIN'T MISBEHAVIN,'" — Laguna Playhouse

A Non-Stop Jazz-Fest Cabaret on Steroids Laying Tribute to the Late, Great "Fats" Waller.


Snazzy, kinetic, hot and hilarious, “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” sizzles onstage right now at the historic and award-winning Laguna Playhouse, running through February 11th. But, this Tony-winning musical is much more than that — it’s a whole cluster of marvels. With its simple, yet elegant, nightclub set and a cast of phenomenally skillful singer-hoofers, can you say must-see entertainment?


The sung-through storytelling comes alive through the direction of original Broadway star Yvette Freeman Hartley, and electrifying, high-octane choreography by the esteemed Roxane Carrasco gives it a very authentic feel. In fact, no self‐respecting audience could possibly let it go on without interrupting it continually with agitated delight.


Pianist, jazz singer, composer, and all-around entertainer, Fats Waller did it all. One of the most popular musical figures of the Golden Age of jazz with a larger-than-life personality, he was perhaps most highly regarded as a stride pianist without equal, one who was so good that Gershwin pal and fellow pianist Oscar Levant once dubbed him “the black Horowitz.” From starring in many of Harlem’s rent parties to gracing stages from Chicago to Philadelphia and New York, Waller was always in high demand.


Summer Nicole Greer, Dedrick Bonner, Amber Diane Wright, James Tolbert and Jenelle Lynn Randall star in AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, directed by Yvette Freeman and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse.

In his tragically short career — he died of complications from pneumonia in 1943 at only 39 — Waller composed, collaborated on, or popularized dozens of hit tunes, many of which, like the show’s title song, have never really left the repertoire since they first hit the big band era. And it’s these hit songs that are focused on in “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” combined with a brilliant re-creation of the Harlem Renaissance jazz cabaret and nightclub scene when New York became a cultural mecca, teeming with swing immortals like Zora Neale Hurston, Billie Holiday, Paul Robeson, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and, of course, Thomas “Fats” Waller.


Musical Director Abdul Hamid Royal in AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, directed by Yvette Freeman and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse.

It was a welcome distraction from the grinding poverty and the endless gloom of the Great Depression, and a time when Manhattan nightclubs such as the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom were the playgrounds of high society filled with piano players banging out a new beat known as “swing.”


Jenelle Lynn Randall and Dedrick Bonner star in AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, directed by Yvette Freeman and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse.

A whole series of the jazz worlds of the time — uptown and downtown, raffish and posh, funny and startlingly beautiful — came to life. We are conducted through it by five singers, a gentle‐fingered pianist named Abdul Hamid Royal (the music director), and a small band in the background, tendering just the right combination of ballads, jazz riffs, and raunchy novelty songs to help conjure up the liveliness of this upper Manhattan club life, keeping this show hopping from start to finish.


Dedrick Bonner, Summer Nicole Greer, Amber Diane Wright, Jenelle Lynn Randall, and James Tolbert star in AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, directed by Yvette Freeman and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse.

It has no discernable plot. But it does have many moods from light to dark, all of them springing from the show’s quirky and all-too-human lead characters who, in this case, go by their real first names. The women include tough-as-nails Jenelle (Jenelle Lynn Randall), sassy Summer (Summer Nicole Greer), party-girl Amber (Amber Diane Wright), dapper Dedrick (Dedrick Bonner), and ladies’ man James (James Tolbert).


Dedrick Bonner, Summer Nicole Greer, Jenelle Lynn Randall and Amber Diane Wright star in AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, directed by Yvette Freeman and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse.

In singles, pairs, and ensembles, this smoothly professional five-performer cast sings, dances, mugs, and vamps its way through a rollicking cavalcade of hair-raising vaudeville routines and hit tunes ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Better known numbers include the show’s title song, of course, along with “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” “Lounging at the Waldorf,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” and “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.”


Jenelle Lynn Randall, Summer Nicole Greer, Dedrick Bonner, Amber Diane Wright and James Tolbert star in AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, directed by Yvette Freeman and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse.

Comic and novelty songs include the ladies’ take on “When the Nylons Bloom Again” — a WWII lament over the scarcity of nylon stockings; the over-the-top hilarious “Your Feet’s Too Big” (a slapstick one-man vaudeville act sung by Dedrick Bonner, delivered in high indignation and top form); “Fat and Greasy,” a bawdy comic number that reaches its outrageous climax when the now-loosened-up audience gets in on the act, and the breathy, hilarious parody, “Squeeze Me.”


Amber Diane Wright, Summer Nicole Greer, James Tolbert, Jenelle Lynn Randall and Dedrick Bonner star in AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, directed by Yvette Freeman and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse.

Another of the show's high water-marks is in the second act’s 1929 Waller and Brooks jazz standard, “Black and Blue,” when the five singers sit perfectly still, hands folded, and break into partially à cappella plangent harmonies. The polyphonic quality and majesty of this setting could be labeled a spiritual, a Gesualdo madrigal, or any other musical work that operates on pure spirit.


James Tolbert stars in AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, directed by Yvette Freeman and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse.

Several songs, cleverly written, were instant winners with the audience. One such, entitled “Handful of Keys,” where the singers vocalize the piano's stride effect, is absolutely charming. Also “The Viper’s Drag,” commonly known as “The Reefer’s Song,” was exceptionally performed by an animated and charismatic James Tolbert, last seen by me in “Grease” at La Mirada Theatre.


The cast of AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ stars Dedrick Bonner (“Ragtime” at Pasadena Playhouse; “Something Rotten” at Musical Theatre West)  as Ken, Summer Nicole Greer (“44” at the Bourbon Room; “Parade” at the Chance Theatre) as Armelia, Jenelle Lynn Randall (“All Shook Up” on Broadway; “Carrie the Musical” at La Mirada Theatre) as Nell, James Tolbert (“Clue” at La Mirada Theatre; “Anything Goes” at Goodspeed Opera House) as Andre, and Amber Diane Wright (“Aida” at Candlelight Pavillion; “Dreamgirls” at Moonlight Amphitheatre) as Charlaine.  The understudies for AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ are T.J. Wilkins, Jodi Marks and Samantha M. Lawrence.


The Creative Team includes Music by Thomas “Fats” Waller; Conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz; Musical Direction by Abdul Hamid Royal (Tony Nominated — “Five Guys Named Moe”); Choreography by Roxane Carrasco; Direction by Yvette Freeman Hartley (Broadway — “Ain’t Misbehavin’”). Scenic Design by Edward E. Haynes (Broadway — “Chicago”), Jr.; Lighting Design by Jared A. Sayeg; Sound Design by Ian Scot; Costume, Hair and Wig Design by Wendell Carmichael; Projection Design by Aaron Rumley; Props Design by Kevin Williams. The Production Stage Manager is Natalie Figaredo.


AIN’T MISBEHAVIN,’ THE FATS WALLER MUSICAL SHOW Opened January 28th and runs through Sunday, February 11th. Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30pm; Saturdays at 2pm & 7:30pm; Sundays at 1:00pm & 5:30pm. Tickets can be purchased online at www.lagunaplayhouse.com or by calling (949) 497-ARTS (2787). LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE is located at 606 Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach.  


Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report

 


Photo Credits: Jason Niedle







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