LONG BEACH-The International City Theatre (ICT) brought out the brooms, cleaned the closet and dusted the floors when the production company decided to add Ain’t Misbehavin’ to its yearlong stage showcase. Good choice. Closing out the ICT 2012 theatrical campaign, Ain’t Misbehavin’ (playing at the International City Theatre in Long Beach through Nov. 4) is a carousel mix of good music, delightful acting and a fun tribute to one of the great composers during the golden era of jazz.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ has been around since 1978, taking actors such as Nell Carter and Charlayne Woodard into thespian stardom. Based on the life and music of Thomas “Fats” Waller, Ain’t Misbehavin’ is also the recipient of won three Tony and three Drama Awards after making its Broadway debut in 1982. Thanks to its caveat to black musicians during the Harlem Renaissance, the stage play is still alive and sill kicking.
And a lot of fun. Director Saundra McClain’s adaptation of Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz’s musical revue is a fast-moving train of singing and dancing that touches on the culture of black life during a time when the Golden Age of Jazz weaved its way into dominating the music scene. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, places like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom echoed the kind of bluesy, soulful jazz sound Waller incorporated into his music.
All of that is aptly delivered with high energy by the play’s superb cast.
“I want the audience to not only finger-snap and toe-tap along-but to be transported back in time, before hip-hop, through the bebop era and into the Harlem Renaissance, which was one of the most astonishing explosions of theatrical creativity in modern American history,” McClain said.
“I hope others who have seen other productions will be pleasantly surprised by our approach and by the energy and passion of this version. I see Ain’t Misbehavin’ as a timeless classic, not a museum piece, and I want to make it not only entertaining, but innovative and relevant for today’s audience.”
The five actors in the play make Ain’t Misbehavin’ a foot-thumping, rhythm-stirring happening. It is not one of those stage productions where people come and sit, glued frigidly to their seats without even a cough being uttered under their breaths. From the opening number to the play’s finale, Ain’t Misbehavin’ gives you the feel of taking part of something special.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ is two and a half hours of unadulterated enjoyment. There is a lot more to the play than a bunch of feel-good music to snap your fingers to. Ain’t Misbehavin’ stirs your soul. It brings you back to a time when the local juke joint symbolized the idealism and happy-free spirit of a community that released its societal insignificance to cultural commonality through song and dance.
Starting with the title song, which was composed by Waller in 1929, Ain’t Misbehavin’ takes you on a frenzied journey of the way it was when African American musicians became the backbone of a music era that greatly reflected the state of black life. There is a lot more to the production than the wall-to-wall catchy rhythmic tunes and eye-catching dance numbers.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a celebration of life, love and happiness. And it does it with the type of pizzazz that has made it one of the more popular music plays since its inception. To recapture the essence of this special era-the volume of acting intertwines perfectly with the tone of the music. The well-choreographed dance routines become synonymous with excellent-timed singing.
This generation of music may be a lost art today, but there was a time when it was relevant as hip-hop is seen today. Perhaps even more so because that era identified with the struggles, joys, up and downs of a community, a people. When you hear and see numbers like Honeysuckle Rose, Spreadin’ Rhythm Around, Lounging at the Waldorf and Fat and Greasy, it takes you to a time when African Americans could find relief from society inequalities and racial injustices through song and dance.
The actors in the play have gotten a hold of that vibe and have synchronized their theatricals skills together to transport Ain’t Misbehavin’ into a must-see production. While each of the actors brings their unique talents to their respective roles, Phillip Brandon (Phillip), make Ain’t Misbehavin’ a jewel to keep by anchoring the play with his booming voice and natural stage presence. Lacey Daryl Phillips (Lacey) adds flair to the production with his slick dance moves and theatrical showmanship.
The three ladies in the play all add something different through their myriad of characters. The trio shines through like the sun coming through clouds: with radiance and glow, beginning with Jennifer Shelton (Jennifer), who reminds McClain of Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne. Shelton, who plays the character Nell Carter shot to fame with, made McClain think twice about the role.
“I had no idea that she had done theater before,” McClain said in an interview with the L.A. Stage Times. “But she made me see the character in an entirely different way, and it excited me because I could now be more creative.”
While all three women are exceptionally beautiful, Shelton is the obvious eye-candy of the group on stage, seducing the audience with her strutting, purring and flirtatious teasing. But don’t get it twisted, Shelton is very much in command of her character and flawlessly showcases her lyric soprano vocals with ease. Niketa Calame (Niketa), who hit stardom as the voice of young Nala in the animated hit film Lion King, is fine as the song and dance girl.
Amber Mercomes (Amber) seems to be right at home with her character, as all three women blend each other’s talents together with the right symphonic stroke. With the backdrop of a raining night in Harlem, Ain’t Misbehavin’ comes to life with joyous exuberance because you have a cast that allows it to, and gives the audience an opportunity to join in on the hand-slapping, feet-thumping good time.