All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Richard Maltby, Jr., putting “Ain’t Misbehavin'” together in 1976, capitalized on Waller’s penchant for upbeat rhythm and stride piano by infusing his and Murray Horwitz’s revue with broad comedy and non-stop movement that included witty dance sequences by Arthur Faria.
Hunter Foster, directing the show for New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse, takes a fresh look at Maltby and Horwitz’s piece. With the exciting assistance of choreographer Lorin Latarro, he rethinks Maltby’s original staging by adding two dancers to the standard ensemble of five, setting the entire show in an old-time bar where the added dancers double as waiters and bartenders, and creating new comic bits to give his nuclear cast characters and attitudes that are different from Maltby’s, although in the same spirit.
Foster’s staging is the first I’ve seen in 38 years that doesn’t use Maltby’s as a model or copy it wholesale. By departing from the expected look of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” in significant ways, he gives the show a fresh look that proves the piece can stand on his own and that there is no single way of presenting “Ain’t Misbehavin'” to an audience.
The extra dancers supply Foster’s production with exponentially more exuberance and vigor. The remarkable Richard Riaz Yoder is like a perpetual motion machine. Lithe and liquid in movement, he can impress by slinking across the BCP stage or by doing a split in midair.
Yoder is like a gymnast who performs clean, adroit acrobatic feats with no apparatus to help or support him. His broad smile and out-of-control hair add gusto to his already arresting performance. Yoder is electric every time he takes the stage. He radiates vivacity even when he is standing quietly at the bar wiping glasses or pouring drinks.
Alicia Lundgren can also execute any terpsichorial or harmonic requirement. Long-limbed and willowy, Lundgren brings out the sexiness in numbers. She and Yoder are no slouches when they are called on to play romantic scenes and do well with the one line each is given to prevent their parts from being totally mute.
From my enthusiasm so far, you can tell that Foster’s idea to increase the “Misbehavin'” company and Latarro’s joyous dances is one that enhances “Ain’t Misbehavin”s” appeal and provides other directors an innovative example of ways to have some theatrical fun with Maltby and Horwitz’s chestnut.
Foster also conceives some inspired moments within “Ain’t Misbehavin”s” familiar numbers.
“The Viper’s Drag” is a consistently irritating problem child of Maltby and Horwitz’s revue. The number gets your attention quickly enough, with a character languidly announcing he “dreamed about a reefer five feet long,” but once past that joke, “The Viper’s Drag” seems slow and deliberate. It’s a change-of-pace number that makes you long mightily for a return of the pace it’s altering.
Only a few times have I watched this sequence without losing focus or taking a minute to think of where I would head for dinner or a drink after the show. As bits go, “The Viper’s Drag,” despite its enticing premise, is usually a bore.
Darius de Haas joined a skein of actors who could not hold my interest in the drawn-out sequence, until Foster worked some magic and added some hilarious heft to the hallucination parts of it. All of a sudden as de Haas, who is not the problem as much as the material, wallows in his pot-induced stupor, Abraham Lincoln wanders on stage right, and de Haas’s character is startled, makes a deep bow, and bellows, “Thank you.”
That is some great stuff, but Foster builds on the gambit by following Lincoln’s appearance immediately with the entrance of Jesus Christ on a high platform, as if looking down from heaven, upstage left. DeHaas bends his back, raises his head suspiciously towards Jesus, and stares for about 15 seconds, as if he can’t believe his eyes, then turns directly to the audience to deliciously deliver “Ain’t Misbehavin”s” most famous tagline, “One never knows, do one?”
The cameos by the Emancipator and The Savior redeem the number and catapult it a high place on a list of bits that are intelligent, funny, and, no pun, God-sent all at once.
Would that all of Foster’s ideas were as successful!,/p>
I opened this dialogue by praising the intrinsic entertainment value of “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” That quality prevails, thanks in many ways to Yoder, Lundgren, Latarro, and a stunning hoyden named Adrienne Warren.
More often that not, music or dance has to carry the moment because Foster’s cast executes the tons of business he asks them so self-consciously, the desired humor looks forced and actually takes away from numbers instead of enlivening them.
I saw the first Saturday evening performance of the production. At that point, the company had two weeks of rehearsal. There is a chance that the cast in general will, in subsequent weeks, become more comfortable with the prescribed shtick and perform it more smoothly and integrally, so it seems part of a number instead of an inappropriate embellishment. That has to happen for Foster’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'” to radiate with all the luster with which Foster wants to endow it.
Several numbers seem stilted because the business in them is more off-putting and disruptive than it is sexy or funny or sharp. Of the nuclear cast, only Adrienne Warren seems to escape looking as if she is still trying to learn all of the bits Foster has contrived. Each performer has a moment when you can see how capable he or she is of executing a number or commanding attention, but in general, Warren is alone in making every nuance, moue, flounce, or vocal trick pay. Her castmates seem to exaggerate motions and effects, so they end up selling their gyrations, emphases, reactions, etc. rather than doing them with an ease and purpose that make each drawl or hip bump seem part of the show. The attempt as show business savvy turns into something more akin to “amateur night in Dixie.”
This is a particular shame because musically and vocally, the BCP cast is universally good. Matters improve in the second half of the second act when a series of numbers are done at a quick pace that allows little opportunity for hamming or begging for attention.
The first numbers of Foster’s production are marred by overdoing and set a bad theatrical tone for the show. Waller’s songs, written with various collaborators, including Maltby who supplied several lyrics to instrumental pieces, are as spunkily delightful as ever, Luther Henderson’s orchestrations, played by David Alan Bunn and a talented band, zing with vivacious wit, but each of the early tunes is spoiled by some gesture or expression that seems out of place. “Honeysuckle Rose” comes off the best because Max Kumangai, who has a knack for offbest line readings, rolls out, “I don’t blame them, goodness knows,” in a refreshingly surprising way” before dissolving into shtick, and the reliable Adrienne Warren handles her part of the song straightforwardly, getting any extra meaning she intends through her cleverly placed, unembellished vocal. Warren reinforces her different approach to both Waller’s and Foster’s demands in “Yacht Club Swing,” which comes off so much more clean and poised than other numbers in the “Ladies Who Sing With the Band” sequence. Warren looks especially pert in the boat that hangs from her shoulders and creates the right whimsical effect.
Every member of the cast has one number or passage that makes you aware of the talent Foster saw when he cast them.
Kumangai often gives songs and dialogue added texture because of a way he has of expressing lines with different emphases than expected. When he puts this trait into service, Kumangai is an asset. He is especially entertaining declaring “Your Feet’s Too Big.” When given shtick to do, he seems as much at sea as everyone but Warren and the dancers.
Brandi Chavonne Massey, often the most egregious offender in bumping a hip too cheaply or sustaining a note too long, is a haunting anchor of Waller’s serious song about prejudice and its effect, “Black and Blue,” and displays a true and lovely contralto when she isn’t forced into high registers for alleged comic purposes or made to distort what we eventually hear is a beautiful vocal instrument. The tight harmony of “Black and Blue,” and the sincerity with the number is delivered, make it a dramatic highlight of Foster’s production.
Darius de Haas does wonderfully in the hallucinated portions of his “Viper” number. Aisha de Haas, in the one chance she has to sing front and center with no gimmicks, also proves she can move an audience. Realizing how much depth this cast has, and seeing how well they execute Latarro’s fabulous dances, makes one wonder why Foster mitigated so much talent for gimmickry that doesn’t work and that diminishes “Ain’t Misbehavin”s” numbers, sometimes grotesquely, when he would have been better off to trust Waller’s music, Henderson’s orchestrations, Bunn’s conducting, and his casts’ merits.
The miracle is Adrienne Warren escapes all attempts to render her silly or inept. No matter what Warren does, it plays winningly and naturally. She has shtick to do, but she incorporates it into a integral performance. Throughout Foster’s production, she glows with the patina of a true artist, unaffected by shenanigans going on around her and immune to having even the most contrived bit become cloying. Warren and Richard Riaz Yoder keep BCP’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'” afloat while the heavy-handedness from other quarters seem likely to sink it.
In terms of energy and choreographic versatility, Massey, Kumangai, the de Haases, and Warren deserve a lot of credit, as do Yoder and Lundgren. Ensemble pieces were prone to the same excesses as individual numbers, but the liveliness with which all is performed cannot be questioned. What Foster needs to consider is much liveliness and surefire material can be depreciated by an overload of physical business. Taken as a whole, his “Ain’t Misbehavin;” is a mixed bag, shrewd in innovative passages and vivacious throughout, but indiscriminate and undisciplined to a point of frequently doing real damage to a reliable chestnut.
Kudos to William Chin and David L. Arsenault for their atmospheric old-time bar set, and to Jennifer Caprio for her tasteful and well-appointed costumes.
“Ain’t Misbehavin'” runs through Sunday, September 7 at the Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main Street, in New Hope, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $59.50 to $25 and can be ordered by calling 215-862-2121 or by going online to http://www.bcptheater.org.