“I don’t stay out late, don’t care to go; I’m home about eight–just me and my radio. Ain’t misbehavin’, I’m savin’ my love for you”—“Ain’t Misbehavin’” Music By Thomas “Fats” Waller (1929)
“Hi There Fellas! (Ladies too!) What do you say?” The joint is jumpin’ over at “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” in La Mirada California, where, in conjunction with McCoy-Rigby Entertainment, they’ve launched their 40th Season in a grand manner with the Tony Award-winning tribute to American Songster Thomas “Fats” Waller, known as “Ain’t Misbehavin’ “! Conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz, this new production is directed by original Broadway cast alum, Ken Page and stars popular “American Idol” and “The Voice” contender “Frenchie Davis” (who also headlined in the show’s 30th Anniversary tour) in the company of a multi-talented quartet of Co-stars. Featuring Choreography by Jeffrey Polk and Musical Direction by Lanny Hartley (who also serves as the show’s Pianist and Conductor) this re-imagined production officially opened on Saturday, September 16th, 2017 to an enthusiastic opening night crowd!
Regarded as “The Clown Prince Of Jazz”, in the early decades of the 20th Century (popularly referred to as “The Jazz Age”,) Thomas “Fats” Waller was a ground-breaking African-American jazz pianist, composer, troubadour, and bowler-hat wearing comedic force-of-nature who broke down barriers and helped define an era with his unabashedly jubilant songs. Born in New York City in 1904, the son of a Baptist Minister, Waller’s musical innovations and flair at the keyboard with what has since been dubbed the classic “Harlem stride style”, laid the groundwork for modern jazz piano. Perhaps more than any other artist of his time, he managed to take advantage of the developing mediums of radio, sound-recordings and “talking” films to spread his gospel of good, old-fashioned “Good Time Music”. As the man behind such American standards as “Honeysuckle Rose”, “Don’t Want You ‘Cause Your Feet’s Too Big”, “ ’Tain’t Nobody’s Bizz-ness If I Do”, “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie” and the seminal titular number, “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, rumor even has it that so in-demand was this musical master, that such a rabid fan as none other than mob king-pin Al Capone once even had Waller coerced at gun point to entertain at his Birthday party!
Besides simply enjoying an outstanding ‘theatrical’ experience, you can really look forward to an outstanding ‘communal’ experience here as well, especially when you contemplate how these long-loved tunes have been such a part of our shared cultural heritage for decades! Word is, that over the course of the original show’s pre-Broadway run at “The Manhattan Theatre Club”, one of its staunchest supporters was no less a figure than former First-Lady Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis, who urged many of her friends to regularly help fill the audience—guaranteeing it greater notoriety, not to mention numerous “Standing Room Only” houses. Her ardent patronage is understandable–much like one of those terrific old Disney-Theme park shows, you’ll find yourself wanting to let loose and enjoy yourself—and, witnessing the consistently high-caliber of what’s being presented in “The La Mirada Theatre’s” new production, you certainly will! The time is the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and 30’s—an epoch when jazz and jive were king and where now-legendary New York City establishments like “The Cotton Club”, “The Savoy Ballroom” and the infamous “Backroom” speakeasy were nightly jammed to capacity. At lights down, a vintage recording of Waller himself warbling the title number is heard, as slowly the on-stage, upright piano and its player, float to the center and take over the tune live. As he plays, one by one the performers enter and join in. Mostly sung through with relatively little dialogue, sometimes hot, sometimes sweet, the basic topics melodiously covered in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” explore love, romance, money (or lack of it,) music (‘stride’ piano playing particularly—which Waller helped make famous) dancing, World War Two on the ‘Home-front’, and even the little ol’ “Big Apple” itself throughout this lively period. Indeed, one of the vital elements that really makes this ‘revue-sical’ stand apart and above other entertainments of a similar nature, is that the songs involved are enacted in some context of the times and background in which they became hits.
Starring a five-person all African-American cast, together they form a tightly-knit team, and each are listed in the program as ‘playing’ characters named after the Actors who created them on Broadway (among them, “Ken” Page, “Andre” De Shields, and “Nell” Carter.) Along with a plethora of incredible ‘solo’ turns, arguably some of the very best moments this production boasts is when they all unite for some truly dynamic “group” numbers. Of course, that they thoroughly dazzle us with the two opening numbers: “Ain’t Misbehavin” and it’s ‘companion’ piece, “Lookin’ Good But Feelin’ Bad”, is a given—but over and above those, they also amaze with the breakneck articulation heard as part of “Handful Of Keys”. Sung in praise of an old piano (–once a standard furnishing in every front parlour,) it’s a robust group endeavor—that practically dares you not to clap along! Throwing a little “Swing” into the evening shortly after, the entire troupe jumps right in (literally) to the “Jitterbug Waltz”—ultimately upping the ante with some stupendous harmonizing and sporty moves. As a trio, the ladies also get together several times–and each time with superlative results. First with their uproarious salute to the Andrew Sisters through the war-time ode to much sought after (but at the time scarce) ladies hosiery titled “When The Nylons Bloom Again”; then again in the next act when backing “Lounging At The Waldorf”. Joined by the guys once more for the conclusion of Act One, they raise the roof all over again with the magnificent (and appropriately titled) “This Joint Is Jumpin’” making for an energetic and electrifying Act Break. The second act begins a little more ‘up town’ with another rousing group accomplishment: “Spreading Rhythm Around”. Also after the break, they combine their voices again with the spirited “That Ain’t Right”, written by a then up-and-coming crooner named Nat King Cole, but introduced by Waller in the 1943 film “Stormy Weather” (with additional lyrics here by Richard Maltby and Murray Horwitz.) Then it’s the men’s turn for some synchronized singing with the side-splitting “Fat And Greasy”—and the payoff is big, bouncy and Bravo-worthy! Right before the finale, the entire cast re-assemble for an almost a cappella version of “Black And Blue”. The effect is nothing short of breath-taking, and further underscores (as if it were needed) exactly how talented a bunch these five are! Subsequently, the actual finale is made up of a medley of songs written by others but popularized by Waller’s rendering of them. These include solo turns by each member of the cast delivering some unforgettable songs.
Featured Guest Artist, Frenchie Davis is full-figured and flawlessly fabulous as “Nell”–a big, beautiful gal with an equally big, beautiful voice! It should be no surprise then, that she so categorically triumphs taking on the role that made Carter a Tony-Award Winning Chanteuse. In fact, Davis could very well be this new millennium’s answer to Nell Carter—or Ruth Brown, Della Reese, or Linda Hopkins for that matter! Her heartfelt, and perfectly timed rendition of “I Got A Feeling I’m Falling” is one of those near-magical musical moments that only occur when a singer really understands and can convey a song that’s so “right” for them, with the perfect amount of emotion and embellishments (rest assured, this is exactly just such a moment!) Unforgettable too is Ms. Davis’ funny foray into the 40’s, caroling forth the virtues (and benefits) of recycling for the war effort in the chipper “Cash For Your Trash”. Starting out effervescent enough, she turns it up several notches with some first-class rapid-fire scat-singing on through to the coda. She also flourishes when exposing her more introspective side with the pensive “Mean To Me” (—which, in light of the sheer emotion she infuses it with just may bring a tear or two to your eyes.) Her final bestowal of the evening has her serenading us with an intriguing up-tempo arrangement of the quintessential heart-tugger “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie”. So too, gifted with a big, bold, baritone and charismatic comportment himself, Boise Holmes also does a formidable job as “Ken”. His is kind of a “Master-Of-Ceremonies” role and Holmes has just the huge, compelling personality for it! He handily proves this with his contributions to the first two numbers—“Ain’t Misbehavin’” then right after in “Lookin’ Good But Feelin’ Bad”. He also excels directly after intermission while leading “Lounging At The Waldorf” (a tribute to NYC’s most prestigious hotel.) He strikes gold again in Act Two with the comedic (and definitely toe-tapping) “Your Feet’s Too Big”—belted out to a scintillating struttin’ beat, then prevails once more during the show’s 11 O’ Clock “medley” sequence with his absolute knock-out handling of “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter”. Not to be overlooked either is the early knock-out Davis and Holmes achieve when they pair up for a soulsy variation of the immortal, “Honeysuckle Rose”.
Joining them is Natalie Wachen, who’s a bright and boisterous bundle of charm and vitality (with a substantial voice to match) as the flirtatious “Charlaine”. She puts all of this energy to prosperous use, garnering loads of laughter and applause in the process, with the exuberant “Yacht Club Swing”, then again with her part in “When The Nylons Bloom Again”. Later, her mellow “Keepin’ Out Of Trouble Now” demonstrates still another side of this marvelously talented lass and her enviable song-styling capabilities. Likewise, as “Andre”, Thomas Hobson strikes pay-dirt immediately leading the ensemble in “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizz-ness If I Do” (-–which also supplies yet another prime opportunity for some impressive group-harmonizing early on.) A lithe and gifted dancer, he displays an exceptional finesse in this area–first with “How Ya Baby”. Opposite Ms. Wachen, the two really cut a cool rug with a jivey Jitterbug—done-up Harlem style, which sees them “up on their heels, down on their toes’—struttin’, truckin’, and kickin’ high! In the second half, he does it again with a traditional ballad to the one-of-a-kind virtues of ‘hemp’ called “The Vipers Drag” (A.K.A. “The Reefer Song”.) Bathed in a dreamy blue-green light, Hobson slides, glides and gyrates effortlessly across the stage (in between tokes on his cigarette) making this a definite crowd-pleaser that’s smoooooth with a capital “S”! (If your throat gets dry, you know you’re high! Everything is dandy; Truck on down to the candy store and bust your conk on some peppermint candy!” he exults.)
Amber Liekhus also hands over a luminous performance as “Armelia”. Blessed with an awe-inspiring soprano coloratura, happily, she has plenty of chances to show this off by investing some of her choruses and ride-outs with rich and remarkable sustained notes! Mesmerizing us with her initial offering–the sultry torch-song “Oh, Daddy Squeeze Me”, her restraint and expert phrasing makes this an outright highlight of Act One (Without a doubt, this lady’s voice surely could cure any after-hours hangover!) Post-intermission, she teams with Ms. Davis for the festively provocative “Find Out What They Like” as the gals disclose how ‘sophisticated’ ladies can guarantee the fidelity of any man. Musical Director Lanny Hartley also deserves abundant plaudits as the pianist who’s on-stage with them the entire time (in many ways, he could—and justly, should be–considered the cast’s ‘sixth’ member!) Under his skillful hand and handiwork, this joint positively is kept ‘jumpin’—and even the instrumental “entre act” is a showstopper! (Be sure to stay until after the exit music when each member of the band is given a turn to take a well-earned bow of his own!)
Director Ken Page has the Midas touch as regards his complete understanding of this riveting time and the material that sprang from it, and he deftly applies this knowledge liberally with a tremendous outcome. Inasmuch as the score is packed with one distinguished—even iconic– number after another, he shrewdly keeps the pace flowing smoothly enough, but never so hurriedly or languidly than any significant moments are lost or not realized to their full potential. Moreover, he also discerningly plays to the individual strengths of his immensely talented cast—ensuring that each compliments (or on a few occasions, maybe even builds on) one another’s; in doing so, he enables already strong performances to become even stronger. Although the relatively brief moments of fancy-footwork serve more as a support for the songs (—frequently springing out of, and fueled by, individual lyrics,) this doesn’t mean that Choreographer Jeffrey Polk’s impact is in any way inconsequential! For instance, while the first really notable dance interlude occurs half-way through the first act with “The Jitterbug Waltz” (wherein at last the up-stage curtains part revealing the full 8-piece band,) rest assured it is worth waiting for. Think of his allotments of staged-motion more as like the cherry on top of the sundae or candles on the birthday cake. Moments of movement pop-up here and there, always just at the right times and endow the songs with an added ‘seasoning’, making each more fun and flavorful. Delightedly too, each time they do occur, they provide clever and accurate glimpses into the dance modes of the age. Technically speaking, Set Designer Stephen Gifford’s glitzy “Harlem Hot-spot” set is festooned with a collage of portraits of Waller himself, with the piano placed at the stage-left corner, and in the midst of it all is a large up-stage silk curtain. Behind this, the band is secreted away until they are, at length, unveiled. Presiding over all of it are two mirrored balls—which cast colorful specks of light across the happenings at key moments. Gifford’s real touch of ingenuity though, lies in the way several audience members were seated at small tables situated just below the stage’s apron, thus heightening this vintage night-club effect. Steven Young’s vibrant (and at times even daring) Lighting Design increases this aura–frequently making use of forceful hues like Reds, Violets, Golds and even deep Green at one point. For the finale, he lights the entire set-up with cheery ‘chasing’ lights that flash and flicker like a Vegas showroom—thus sending the audience out on a ‘bright’ note. Shon LeBlanc’s picture-perfect Costume Designs don’t miss a trick either– vivaciously recalling a fascinating time in our recent history, while also giving each player a separate, distinct color which better empowers them to stand-out and be more readily recognized by.
So ‘here ‘tis!’ Piano thumpin’—the dancer’s bumpin…come in Cats and check your hats—and head to “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” located at 14900 La Mirada Blvd in La Mirada, CA.! After “Previewing” on Friday, September 15th, 2017, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” officially opened on Saturday, September 16th, where it will run through Sunday, October 8th, 2017. Showtimes are 7:30 PM on Wednesday and Thursday evenings; 8:00 PM on Friday evenings; 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM on Saturdays; with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM. (There will be an ‘Open Captioned’ performance on Saturday, September 30th at 2:00 PM and an ASL interpreted performance on Saturday, October 7th at 2:00 PM. In addition, “Talkbacks” with the cast and creative team will be held directly after the Wednesday, September 20th, and Wednesday, October 4th performances.) Tickets can be purchased on-line via “The La Mirada Theatre’s” website located at: http://www.lamiradatheatre.com , or by calling “The La Mirada Theatre Box Office” at (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310. (Student, Senior and Group discounts are available, with special reduced-price “Student Rush” Tickets available for the first 15 performances of this engagement.)
Productions Stills By Michael Lamont, Courtesy Of Demand PR (www.demandpr.com) And McCoy-Rigby Entertainment; Special Thanks To David Elzer At Demand PR, Tom McCoy, Cathy Rigby, Ken Page, Jeffrey Polk, Lanny Hartley & To The Cast & Crew Of “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” And McCoy-Rigby Entertainment’s 2017 Production Of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” For Making This Story Possible.