Five terrific performers and a slate of Fats Waller songs. How can you go wrong? I know that Ain't Misbehavin', a jazzy, bluesy Waller showcase that brings the world of 1930s Harlem to life, is often staged in a broadly presentational style, with lots of humor, shtick, dancing and acting out, but I found the Country Dinner Playhouse version -- directed and choreographed by General McArthur Hambrick -- so busy, jiggly, shrieky and jumpy that the production actually detracted from the music.
LaDonna Burns (left), Kenny Moten, Mary Louise Lee,
Eric Lee Johnson and Jayne Trinette in Ain't
This is a shame, because the music is full of life and brilliance, from the flirtatiousness of "Honeysuckle Rose" through the infectious rhythms of "The Joint Is Jumpin'" to the aching strains of "Black and Blue." And LaDonna Burns, Jayne Trinette, Kenny Moten, Eric Lee Johnson and Mary Louise Lee are not only wonderful singers, with voices full of poignancy and power, but charming and seductive performers.
When Burns first jacked up her pitch on a high note and emitted a wild steam-engine scream -- accompanying the sound with the stomps and grimaces you expect of a two-year-old having a tantrum -- it was both funny and impressive. But the trick was far less appealing the second and third time she pulled it, and downright distressing by the fourth, when your ears were ringing and all you could think about was how much you'd like to hear her extraordinary voice actually hitting those notes.
Some of the most appealing songs come in the second act, which contains the earthy humor of "Your Feet's Too Big" and "Fat and Greasy," along with touching ballads like "Mean to Me." The cast seems to find its feet here, too, beginning with the harmonies of "Spreadin' Rhythm Around" and going on to the sly humor of "Lounging at the Waldorf." Trinette can be funny or touching at will. Johnson has a lively style and a reverberating baritone-bass, and Moten brings impressive precision and a smooth, lean elegance to the stage. Lee's voice glimmers like moonlight on a quiet lake as she sings "Keeping Out of Mischief Now." Best of all is the entire cast's quietly heartbreaking rendition of "Black and Blue."