Of all the summer musicals available this season, the best so far is Ain't Misbehavin', featuring the music of Fats Waller. The production now playing at the Eulipions cultural center erupts with energy, talent and intelligence. These songs are gutsy, wise and full of heart--earthy, sweetly romantic, at times patriotic. When Waller's sentiments are serious, as in "Black and Blue," they're perceptive and stirring. When they're playful, they pinpoint human flaws and mock them with high good humor. Maybe it was the more innocent period in which Waller wrote, but there are qualities about these pop tunes--most notably, their absence of malice--that have been all but lost today.
Waller would have been ninety this year, and the grand old man would have been delighted with the quality of the Eulipions production. Director Buddy Butler keeps the performers moving on stage and sometimes down among the audience, demanding audience participation and eliciting peals of laughter. Without the benefit of dialogue, the director and performers create a unified work, a kind of history of Waller's music and the changing realities of American culture (including lots of World War II songs).
Three men and three women make up the company. Darla Herndon has a light, funny little voice perfect for comic songs. When she sings "Jitterbug Waltz" with Keith Hatten, who is blessed with a big, sonorous voice, the contrast is delightful. Herndon is also a terrific actress who maintains a constant connection with the audience, helping to create the benevolent atmosphere of the whole show.
Hatten is a big guy, but he dances with an easy grace that belies his stature. He attacks "The Viper's Drag," a parody of pot smoking, with ferocious glee. He's paired again with Hatten in "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie," and the song's warnings about the high price of true love come across as natural and honest.
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Roberta Johnson has the richest, most penetrating voice of the female cast members, and if she doesn't engage the audience with the easy persistence of Darla Herndon, she offers something else: the grace and ballast of the serious artist. Everything she sings is laced with feeling and a twinge of sadness. Yet she never sentimentalizes songs that are already poignant.
Ed Battle brings a fine, scratchy elegance to the show--a commanding presence and a voice that's a little rough but always appealing. As the short guy with an attitude, Vincent Robinson is alternately teasing and tough and--as when he pairs up with Johnson in "Two Sleepy People"--can also project affectionate warmth. Shana E. Chambers rounds out the production with a pretty voice and a talent for the kind of sardonic wit suited to a song like "When the Nylons Bloom Again," a war tune about looking forward to the peacetime return of luxury items.
One can't help but compare the bright, life-affirming observations of a show like Ain't Misbehavin' to the empty sentiments found in And the World Goes 'Round, still playing at the Galleria Theatre. After hearing Waller's songs, the Kander and Ebb tunes featured in so many contemporary Broadway shows seem self-indulgent, self-conscious and overblown. Fast-paced and absorbingly entertaining, Ain't Misbehavin' is by far the more fetching of the two. Costs less, too.