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THEATER REVIEW

It's still spreadin' rhythm around

The joint jumps anew in Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities' revival of the dynamic Fats Waller songfest 'Ain't Misbehavin'.'

September 22, 2004|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

"Ain't Misbehavin', " the Fats Waller musical, first sizzled its way onto Broadway in 1978, celebrating the genius and larger-than-life persona of the early jazz icon, composer extraordinaire, stride piano master and "280 pounds of jam, jive and everything," through more than 30 sexy, rhapsodic, raucous and gleefully rude songs written between 1925 and 1943.

Conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. as an exuberant song-and-dance revue, the show can rock the stage like nobody's business, elicit gales of laughter for its audacious humor and set hearts thumping to its emphatic rhythms. What's not to like?

Besides, that is, a wonky sound mix that threw things out of whack on opening night in Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities' otherwise terrific revival at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center.

For a time, the superb cast -- Yvette Cason, Hassan El-Amin, Jacqueline Rene, Nikkema Taylor and Harrison White -- were at the mercy of a piercing vocal edge and too-dominant instrumentals from the highflying onstage band. With upped volume and frenetic energy as compensation, opening numbers " 'T Ain't Nobody's Biz-Ness if I Do" and "Honeysuckle Rose" suffered the most.

As the problem was gradually resolved through the first act, the company -- directed with verve by original "Ain't Misbehavin' " cast member Ken Page -- found its equilibrium and decisively claimed the show's heart and soul.

(John Feinstein designed the sound, but according to producing artistic director Steven Ullman, an eleventh-hour switch to new head mikes required on-the-spot mixing to find the right balance between orchestra and vocals.)

Taylor, a big, physical presence, gave the first intimation that things were going to heat up nicely with her slyly demure, exceedingly naughty rendition of "Squeeze Me," sung in a pure, sweet soprano.

By the time these five dynamite pros had partnered each other through the sleepily sensual "Jitterbug Waltz" (Ron Kellum choreographed the production), raised the rafters with "The Joint Is Jumpin' " and whooped into the knockout second act, the show had become an irresistible force, as much for its well-played humor as the varied storytelling songs and Waller's meaty rhythms.

Highlights in a highlight-filled second act include El-Amin, hilarious in "Your Feet's Too Big," Cason's deeply felt phrasings in "Mean to Me," Rene's flirtatious sparkle in "Keepin' out of Mischief Now" and White's slow-motion glide and slide through "The Viper's Drag/The Reefer Song": "I dreamed about a reefer 5 feet long...."

If decorum and political correctness is your ticket, stay away.

In a deeply affecting mood shift, the full cast renders a pointed, painful delivery of "Black and Blue," haunted by dying and ascending harmonies.

The seven-member band, led by conductor-pianist Darryl W. Archibald, is top-notch, complementing this evocation of Waller's spirit with its instrumental wail, chuckle and swing.

Set designer Christopher Beyries' Art Deco frame and costume designer Jose M. Rivera's hats, sequins, feathers, furs and jewel-toned dresses (and hair, wig and makeup by Deanne Johnson) evoke the glamour of Harlem's nightclubbing heyday, while lighting designer Steven Young reflects the various scenes' ambient moods.

A failing grade for the show's program, though. Among all the bio and background information, why no mention of Waller and Maltby?

*

`Ain't Misbehavin''

Where: Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Ends: Oct. 3

Price: $37.50 to $52.50

Contact: (310) 372-4477

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

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