Behaving With Classy Sophistication

Ain’t Misbehavin’ co-star Jennifer Shelton (center) turns in a riveting performance in the long-running musical revue,

Jennifer Shelton knows she isn’t Nell Carter. But she isn’t trying to be either. A lyrical soprano, Shelton is a woman who does things her way. She doesn’t need to imitate. She is not trying to emulate Carter or anyone else, for that matter. What you see is what you get. And what you get from Shelton is a lot of high energy, superb acting and one amazing voice.

Shelton brilliantly showcases her triple-threat skills in the Broadway hit musical revue-the ambitious Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the International City Theatre in Long Beach, playing through Sunday, Nov. 4. Based on the life and music of Thomas “Fats” Waller, Ain’t Misbehavin’ sparkles with the spirit of the Cotton Club and the Harlem Renaissance genre being at the forefront of the toe-tapping, hand-clapping musical time period.

Shelton, whom Ain’t Misbehavin’ director Saundra McClain compares to the great Lena Horne and the alluring Dorothy Dandridge, takes on the character that Carter turned into a signature role and makes it one that she can call her own. It is a difficult task to walk in the shoes of an icon, particularly a stage legend like Carter, who earned the prestigious Tony Award for the character Shelton is playing.

Before moving on to industry and celebrity fame with the success of the long-running television show, Gimme a Break!, Carter put a dent in the stage production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ with her bigger-than-life personality. Shelton adds her own flavor to the character-delivering her lines with personable wit, bringing a dash of sensuality to the role and, of course, commanding the audience’s attention with that radiantly powerful high-octave voice of hers.  

The remarkable cast in Ain’t Misbehavin’ all put on stellar performances with their individual performances. Shelton, however, is the showstopper that makes it all work. The veteran stage actor whose many performances include notable work in Ragtime, Beauty and the Beast, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Man of La Mancha and Hello, Dolly!, gives an electric performance that takes this current production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ to a level of “must-see.”

A star on the rise: Actress Jennifer Shelton is a bright star on stage.

There are a couple notable traits that immediately stand out in this version of Ain’t Misbehavin’ that separates any comparisons between Carter and Shelton. Shelton doesn’t have the sassiness and sharp-tongue delivery the late Carter possessed. She is not as big physically. What Shelton does have is a sleek, velvet rope voice milked by her knockout beauty.  But being a great actress is a lot more than having good looks and a nice singing voice.    

There are a whole lot of beautiful actresses and stud-type actors waiting tables and answering phones today hoping to have the body of work that Shelton has put together in her theatrical background. Shelton has performed as a headliner with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra/Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra. In short, Shelton has got talent.

You don’t attain the level of success Shelton has managed to achieve just because you have a pretty face. Passion for the work, along with due diligence, determination and perseverance goes a long way in the makeup of Shelton as an actress. Shelton has the kind of talent that has landed her into demand as a top-notch thespian. Shelton took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to about following Carter’s gigantic footsteps, her career and being part of the Ain’t Misbehavin’ cast. Do you try to replace a Nell Carter?

Jennifer Shelton:”You’re stepping a character, not necessarily the actor who play that character. You’re playing that character. The lines or the things that she would say, the way she would stylized her songs, pretty much speaks to how she did things. I am doing all the songs that she did, but I am nothing like Nell Carter. Rather than having me re-create what Nell Carter did, Saundra (Director Saundra McLain) has given me the option to sort of make it my own and be a completely different character.

“And so the character she comes up with is sort of a Cotton Club cutie, a little showgirl who wants to be a star, and wants to be in control…I don’t have to try to step into the shoes of Nell Carter. I can step into the music and the beauty of the music, but make it my own.” How excited are you about being part of this production?

Jennifer Shelton:”It’s exciting because I have seen Ain’t Misbehavin’ before, and I know some of the original cast members. I remember when we first got to the initial meet-and-greet production; all we really knew was that I was a strange choice for Nell Carter. But when Saundra, our director, sat down and explained the concept for the show and how unusual it was, they were all excited about it because it’s very different than any other Ain’t Misbehavin’ anyone has ever seen. The re-envisioning of the show is really exciting.

“It is for us. This show is a revue. It is a compilation of music. This show was really written around the original actress who plays in a dress like Nell Carter…We each sort of play one character and the songs are used more of an expression of that character’s development and that character’s path. I think that adds another layer of texture and interest so that we can see the show, not only for music, but for a way the music can help their balance and tell a story.” Did you ever see Nell Carter perform?

Jennifer Shelton:”I did. She is just amazing. She’s very Nell Carter. There’s nobody else like her. Nell Carter was just an amazing, amazing performer. So I’m not going to copy what she did. I’m going to take from what she did, and hopefully learn from her brilliance and make it my own.”  How do you two differ in personalities?

Jennifer Shelton: “I like to explore all aspects of my personalities. She was very much a character actor. Stepping into her vocal range has definitely been a challenge for me, and hitting those long notes, kind of bouncing off those high notes have been a challenge. But it’s been an interesting challenge, a good challenge. We’re very, very different. She’s got a much more of a bold, brassy, sassy personality.” How much has this role helped you grow as an actress?

Jennifer Shelton: “It definitely has helped me to reach out of my comfort zone…its making me pay attention more. It’s definitely a good challenge for me. It’s expanding what I can do as an actress.”  How similar or different is your real-life personality to the one you portray onstage?

Jennifer Shelton: “I am a lot quirkier and less sure of myself. I’m not that poised and graceful. I’m a little awkward and quirky.” Are you always so modest about yourself and your talent?

Jennifer Shelton: “I’d like to say that I am a realist. I know what I can do.  I know some of the areas I’m working on that needs strength.  I am an actor who can sing and I can sing well. I am a singer. Being in musical theater, I’ve valued the performers who can tell the story. I don’t necessarily care about who has the best voice. I value who can tell a story and make you believe it. I’ve always appreciated that about other people and about myself. I don’t always have to be the best singer, but I am a very good entertainer. I’m very good at being provocative and making people think.”






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