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THEATER REVIEW : 'Ain't Misbehavin' ': An Infectious Good Time : Performance at Solvang Festival Theatre leaves audiences humming and singing.

July 08, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Warning: a trip to see "Ain't Misbehavin' " at the Solvang Festival Theatre may be hazardous to your health.

Cases of uncontrollable foot tapping, humming and singing, and general euphoria are reportedly widespread among audiences. Symptoms have been known to persist for some time after the finale, making for less than ideal driving conditions on the road home.

On the other hand, what's life without a little risk?

And life itself--in all its complexity of feeling and unstoppable outpouring of energy--is the best cause for celebration in "Ain't Misbehavin,' " the 1978 Tony award-winning musical adapted by Murray Horowitz and Richard Maltby Jr. from the songs of the legendary Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller.

More of a revue than a traditional book musical, the show features 29 songs culled from Waller's more than 500 original compositions.

Recognizing the self-sufficient appeal of their source material, the show's creators wisely kept the dramaturgy to a minimum. Elaboration of plot and character would only distract from what matters most: the musical vitality that evokes the rhythm and sensibility of a bygone era.

Waller's music overflows with an insatiable appetite for the pleasures of living, and PCPA Theaterfest's production flawlessly evokes his spirit of unabashed hedonism.

From his career origins amid the Harlem speak-easies of the 1920s until his death in 1943 at the age of 39, Waller was a pivotal force in the popular acceptance of jazz culture and its pioneering musicians, mostly black. An accomplished pianist, composer, and--at 300 pounds--an overpowering presence, "Fats" was equally at home in tawdry dives and Manhattan's most elegant nightclubs.

That universal appeal is reflected in the show's two settings. The first act takes place Way Uptown in the 1920s, where the five-member ensemble indulges in a flurry of song and dance--freewheeling, gaudy and uninhibited.

Following the intermission, they return for the second half (set in a posh Downtown club) in elegant white attire (even the three-piece band, headed by Musical Director James M. Calhoun in a credible portrayal of Waller himself at the piano).

But despite the upscale relocation, the performers remain true to the emotional honesty in songs that cut across all social barriers.

It took some imported talent to accomplish it--Artistic Director Andrea Frye from the Black Image Theatre in Atlanta has pulled together a first-rate staging that features the complementary talents of a well-balanced cast of guest artists.

Edward M. Barker, an able dancer and masterful singer, provides most of the humor in outrageous style.

Lea Clarisse Woods and Debi Mason supply the powerhouse vocals in their solo numbers, while Nina Henderson engagingly employs a seemingly ditsy exuberance that somehow never misses a beat in her energetic dance numbers.

But the evening's most accomplished physical acrobatics come from Brian T. Vernon in his duet with Henderson in "Handful of Keys," precision tap-dancing in "How Ya Baby," and an unforgettable display of quadruple-jointed flexibility in the startlingly choreographed "The Viper's Drag."

The theme of racial oppression only surfaces in "Black and Blue," the last number before the finale, though the issue has been an implicit backdrop that makes us appreciate the songs all the more.

Waller's milieu may have been very different from Southern California in the 1990s, but his undefeatable joy in the face of adversity is universal.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Ain't Misbehavin.' " Performed through July 24 at the Solvang Festival Theatre, 420 2nd St., Solvang, Wednesdays through Sundays at 8:30 p.m.; also July 31 through Aug. 14 Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. (some 2 p.m. matinees are offered) at the Allan Hancock College Marian Theatre in Santa Maria. Tickets are $12 to $17. Call (800) 549-PCPA for reservations or information.

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