“Ain’t Misbehavin’” Ain’t Quite the Thrill It Could Be
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a musical review rather than musical theatre. It tells the fun story of a group of Fats Waller fans who may or may not be much like Fats Waller himself. The story line is minimal, and much of it can be supplied by the audience members to suit their own preferences and fantasies. However, there is a necessity to establish a foundation so that any personal fantasies creating a story line for audience members will reach those flights of fancy and fantastic music that are so clearly the highlight of the show.
From the very moment the show opens, it is clear that while the story is the music, the tale would be told cohesively enough to be imagined by the audience. There was no context, no parameters for an audience to use as a basis for the fantasy they could have invented. It would have been great fun to imagine oneself there, at the club, watching this group of patrons singing, dancing and enjoying themselves with the other patrons. The audience really wants to be part of this because the cast on stage looks so good, sounds so good, and starts moving so flatteringly. But they stop just short of inviting the audience to feel comfortable participating, the audience didn’t feel welcome in viewing their expressed joy, they actors simply shut down too soon.
Many of the characters are rather substantial in circumference. Anyone who has ever danced with a fellow who is 6 foot 6 inches in all directions and felt safe and thrilled because her partner could turn on a dime revealing the grace and beauty of sublime movement could easily fantasize dancing with Will Mann, but there was no follow through, no invitation to be part of that fantasy, almost as if it was a rejection. Further, in an atmosphere like this there is banter and teasing and everyone gets a chance to dance with everyone else. Where a young lady may tease another with a comment about curling the toes of her man, but it is jovial. These things seemed to be initiated but, without any follow through, the jealousy appeared to be genuine in some cases.
All of the performers have exquisite vocal capabilities supported by an excellent band, located behind rather than in the orchestra pit just as a club would be set up. The band is just a little too loud much of the time and so much of the lyrics are missed that those clues are not given thus impacting the listeners ability to enjoy the show. So the levels of dance are too low and the levels of the band are too loud. As if they didn’t check those levels in rehearsal. The band, under the musical direction of Phillip Hall on the piano, is fantastic, but overshadowing the songs forces the audience to strain to hear, and that straining is often to no avail. Yet they sounded like they were so good. They just miss the mark by but a hair, and it makes all the difference.
There are 8 cast members, although three of them were not recognized and apparently were with the supernumeraries sitting on the stage in period costume. Occasionally there is some interaction between the main characters and these extras appearing fun and frolicky, but most of the time these extras seemed bored, as if they weren’t sure why they were there. Were they enjoying the music?
Director Monique L. Midgette is a well-respected and talented director with an excellent resume, but in this case it seems as if she was unable to quite overcome some of the obstacles that come with the show. It is imperative that the connection between audience and cast be a strong and vibrant one. The problem, due to the confusion with the extra cast members and the missed follow through, stems from the fact that there is no real story line. What the objective seems to be is for audience members to appreciate that these revelers are enjoying themselves in a club that is totally their space, a place where they feel at home to be themselves without any apology for who they are. The audience, as observers can then incorporate their own impressions into a personal story experiencing the peace and welcome that such a space would provide for them. While that is an obscure story line, it can be a very powerful, enjoyable and a delightfully welcoming story line for audience imagination. A bit like ‘Cheers’ where everybody knows your name.
The five performing cast members are: Will Mann with obviously brilliant talents as yet un realized in this production and Diva Lamarr, also exceptionally endowed with dance and song capabilities. Lamarr does the only full dance number brilliantly, telling a full story with the Viper dance and great movement as well as song. This versatility, alongside Mann’s strength, establishes nice chemistry between the two performers. Three fabulous ladies perform in the piece and these three are clearly some of the most versatile singers ever to grace any stage. They are Melrose Johnson, Paris Bennett and Ashley Támar Davis. All of these ladies are not only capable of great vocals, but they can all move sensually in such a fashion that would drive a man a little crazy. Why did they stop short of telling the enticing story? Why did this audience member never have a moment of envy over how sexy, appealing and yet wholesomely delightful these girls almost reveal themselves to be. Why did choreographer Courtney Jones not follow through enough to give us a glimpse of the story along with a glimpse of the curvaceous leg?
The remaining cast members are Charlie Ludden, Caprie Gordon and Angeli Peña. Apparently they were on the stage as part of the supernumeraries, and may have been the ones who responded to the few interactions that occurred. However Charlie Ludden looked the entire time as if he would rather be home doing his laundry. No one has laundry that is that important. As a concert, this production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is wonderful. As a musical show, it comes so close to being brilliant, but tragically misses the mark. The most important aspect seems that many audience members felt more rejected than welcome, which is exactly the opposite of every thing Fats Waller put into his music. The only possible solution is to just bow your head, close your eyes, forget any story, forget any participation possibilities and enjoy the music that is heard. Or find an old Fats Waller record and listen to that, as this is the rare instance where live performance may not be better than recorded.
The Civic Center Music Hall is a fantastic venue especially for the spectacular extravaganza musical. However, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a show that has a very intimate component. It seems that the space provided by the chosen venue creates a disconnect that is hard to overcome. Had “Ain’t Misbehavin’” been shown at the Lyric Plaza location–a far more intimate space–would the actors have been able to provide the welcoming follow through that is missing at the Civic Center?
The show comes close. Very close. Too close. When something is this close to excellence and yet misses the mark by a hair it almost hurts and is far more disappointing than a bad show would be. The five actors that perform deserve an A for effort and Midgette should be applauded for what she attempts. The musical director, Phillip Hall, must be commended for an outstanding job, only needing to reduce the band levels enough to not overpower the vocals. Choreographer Courtney Jones seems to have good instincts as seen from the wonderful performance Diva Lamarr was able to exhibit.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” shows at the Civic Center Music Hall City at 201 N. Walker Avenue through Sunday, July 30, 2023. Performance times are 7:30 pm during the weekdays and 8:00 pm Friday and Saturday evening. The Sunday matinee is 2:00 pm. For tickets and information contact Lyric Theatre www.LyricTheatreOKC.com (405) 524-9312 or the Civic Center Box Office at www.OKCCivicCenter.com.