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THEATER REVIEW

Fats Waller revival has the joint jumpin'

January 07, 2008|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

Between the Harlem speak-easies of the '30s and the present-day bedroom community of Thousand Oaks lies an enormous gulf -- historical, racial and economic. But if anything can bridge that social divide, it's the celebratory songs of Fats Waller, as adapted for the stage in "Ain't Misbehavin'."

In his short lifetime, Waller played a pivotal role in popularizing black American jazz music and culture to wider audiences. So universal is his songs' appeal that this simple, narrative-free revue, compiled posthumously by Murray Horowitz and Richard Maltby Jr., beat out more fully developed book musicals to capture the 1978 Tony Award.

A spirited 30th-anniversary revival from Cabrillo Music Center enlisted director Ken Page, a veteran of the original Broadway cast whose experience and insight have paid off handsomely, though some logistical issues keep the production from being a complete success.

To handle the diversity needed for these 30 songs from Waller's prodigious output, Page has assembled a versatile cast sporting nicely complementary talents. Two powerhouse female vocalists dominate the singing. Pam Trotter's superb vibrato wrings emotional nuances from "Squeeze Me" and trades domestic squabbling in "That Ain't Right" with Anthony Manough. Belter Melissa Youngblood raises the roof in "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling" and "Mean to Me" and joins the equally uninhibited Arthur L. Ross for a rousing "Honeysuckle Rose."

Ross is an engaging comic presence, at times leveraging his considerable girth to evoke the playful persona of Waller himself (in "Your Feet's Too Big" and "Fat and Greasy"). While his full-volume singing never lacks sufficient heft, Ross' pitch control wavers in the more delicate passages, sometimes to the detriment of ensemble harmonies.

In two of the show's highlights, rubber-limbed Manough slinks his way through an atmospheric 4 a.m. nightclub number, "Viper's Drag/The Reefer Song," and delivers a lively "T'Ain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do."

Handling the more demanding female choreography with aplomb, Natalie Wachen also shows the vocal chops to hold her own with Trotter and Youngblood in "Off-Time" and provides a well-acted portrait of a reformed bad girl in "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now."

Though the show lacks any continuity of character or plot, the song arrangement explores thematic connections (Ross and Manough's bantering "Ladies Who Sing With the Band" provides a sly intro to a series of tunes showcasing the women). There are distinct emotional crescendos, in the energetic "The Joint Is Jumpin' " that closes the first act and the haunting struggle in the face of oppression in "Black and Blue."

The biggest limitation lies in the dismal acoustics of the cavernous Kavli Theatre, which render the recessed, inadequately miked six-piece jazz orchestra all but inaudible. When their platform slides forward for the second-act musical opening, the improvement is stunning, but the clarity is only momentary before they disappear again. At least musical director Darryl Archibald on piano fares better from his more forward perch, but the overall sound engineering leaves much to be desired.

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'Ain't Misbehavin' '

Where: Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday.

Price: $36 to $64

Contact: (805) 449-2787, www .cabrillomusictheatre.com

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

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