Orange County Register review: Ain't Misbehavin'

Review: ‘Ain’t Misbehavin” hits all the right notes in Laguna

Christopher SmithJanuary 29, 2024 at 2:21 p.m.
Amber Diane Wright, Summer Nicole Greer, James Tolbert, Jenelle Lynn Randall and Dedrick Bonner star in “Ain’t Misbehavin'” at Laguna Playhouse. (Photo by Jason Niedle)
Amber Diane Wright, Summer Nicole Greer, James Tolbert, Jenelle Lynn Randall and Dedrick Bonner star in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at Laguna Playhouse. (Photo by Jason Niedle)

“Ain’t Misbehavin’“ is a unique marvel of a musical.

There is no plot. The narrative consists of maybe 30 or 40 spoken words. And performances of its 30-odd catchy songs — the newest of them 80 years young, the oldest closing in on a century ago — are far away from a concert, richer than a mere revue.

Delightfully, the Tony-winning version now on marvelous display at the Laguna Playhouse, captivates as fresh, vibrant theater.

The is achieved through expressive performance, sharp-eyed direction and deft choreography. The two-hour (with an intermission) evening is like experiencing a couple dozen mini-playlets, three-four-minute bursts brimming with storytelling.

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From left, Summer Nicole Greer, Dedrick Bonner, Amber Diane Wright, James Tolbert and Jenelle Lynn Randall star in “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” on stage at Laguna Playhouse through Feb. 11. (Photo by Jason Niedle)

The source material is a roundup of songs largely from the canon of Thomas “Fats” Waller, though there are also tunes he popularized as an appealing performer. This innovative jazz-age pianist, songwriter and Harlem bon vivant had skills as oversized as the 300-pound personage that stamped him with the nickname he is remembered by.

Waller’s talent resides at the intersection of style and substance. Mostly gleeful — though he was capable of mood and depth — these effervescent numbers are also character sketches about Black sensibilities and preoccupations in the ever-evolving eras of the roaring ‘20s, Great Depression ‘30s and early ‘40s war years (Waller died in 1943 of pneumonia at the far too young age of 39).

While individual, elegiac Waller titles like “Honeysuckle Rose,” “‘t Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do” and “The Joint is Jumpin’” remain somewhat familiar pleasures to experience live, it’s the astonishing intelligence and energy running throughout the irresistible score and lyrics that provide the show’s key building blocks.

The collection of these gems that were assembled as the musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was conceived and created in 1978. Among those involved in performing it in its earliest incarnations on Broadway and in national tours was Yvette Freeman Hartley.

Decades on sees Hartley assuredly directing the Laguna Playhouse production in the intimate venue with an eye to staging detail that showcases the considerable talents of her five-member cast and a six-member band.

This two-man, three-woman cast (alphabetically, Dedrick Bonner, Summer Nicole Greer, Jenelle Lynn Randall, James Tolbert and Amber Diane Wright) are each engaged and engaging during their engrossing solos, duets and trios.

Doubling-down is their presence and singing in the many ensemble numbers, the harmonizing quintet of strong voices something to hear.

In the finale reprise of “Honeysuckle Rose,” each singer replicates a musical instrument in a startling replication of the band in full wail.

This is quite an emotional distance to the staggering quietude in the lament about racism, “Black and Blue.” Here the otherwise highly energized quintet focuses rapt attention by singing on stools, sitting without movement or expression. It’s a meaningful approximation of a cappella grief.

Ably fronted by music director Abdul Hamid Royal on the piano, channeling Waller’s “stride” style of playing, the band cooks through the arrangements. Act 2 begins by spotlighting each band member during a satisfying instrumental medley of the show’s score, offering the bass, drums, reeds and brass players a chance to stretch out and solo.

You can’t speak too highly, either, of the choreography in this production. It’s unclear what tracks back to Arthur Faria’s work for 1978’s original mounting, but here Roxane Carrasco’s constructions are invariably dazzling in their economy and focused movement.

Perhaps the most notable dance among all the jitterbugging and other up-tempo physical riffing is the oh-so-sinuous and seductive slither in Tobert’s delivery of the “Viper’s Drag” (who knew maybe the best ode to getting stoned smoking “reefers five feet long” was written waaaay before the ‘60s?)

The physical production well suits the ambience. Scenic designer Edward E. Haynes, Jr. surrounds a fixed set of a couple tables, the upright piano and a cramped bandstand, with impressionistic music motif imagery. Jared Sayeg’s atmospheric lighting suits the musical’s pacing and moods.

The evening in Laguna begins with a recorded version of Waller pitching a sly bit of woo in the 1933 tune called “Do Me a Favor.”

Do Fats, this deep, deserving talent pool and, especially, yourself this favor: experience Laguna’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” while you can.

‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’

Rating: 4 stars (out of a possible 4)

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: Through Feb. 11. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Fridays, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 5:30 p.m. Sundays. Added performances on Thursday, at 2 p.m. Feb. 1 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6. There will be no 5:30 p.m. performance on Feb. 11.

Tickets: $55-94

Information: 949-497-2787;