With one major exception, the North Coast Rep’s doing a bang-up job with Ain’t Misbehavin’, Murray Horwitz, Richard Maltby, Jr., and Luther Henderson’s musical revue/tribute to the legendary Thomas “Fats” Waller (1904–1943).
The title comes from a song he and lyricist Andy Razaf wrote in 1929. There’s a song inside the song. The North Coast Rep’s singers, all playing Waller, swear he “ain’t misbehavin’.” He’s being faithful and glad to stay at home listening to his neighbor’s radio (since he’s too broke to own one). But a sly, Walleresque undercurrent suggests that — at home? Right. And that young woman on your arm was a Girl Scout? Later he says he’s just listening to his radio. I thought he didn’t have one...
That’s Fats, who claimed to be “285 pounds of jam, jive, and everything” and who “lived to misbehave.”
Waller’s songs tell stories. Part of his genius: many tell both sides. They thrive on double entendres and shift like spinning coins. But then in Act Two, Yvonne (her stage name) sings “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” and she’s sincere. Andy Razaf’s lyrics recall “Ain’t Misbehavin’”: “I stay home by my radio/ But I’m satisfied./ All my flirtin’ days are gone,/ On the level from now on.” For fans of the double entendre, however, the words are a trap. You wait for the sly, sassy wink and the other shoe to drop — yeah, faithful and true this time...mmmm-hmmmm. But it doesn’t. The love might be genuine after all.
The revue showcases Waller’s irrepressible spunk, sheer talent, and musical range. All five performers — Cynthia Thomas, Ron Christopher Jones, Anise Ritchie, Tony Perry, and Yvonne (she’s relatively new; remember the name) — are triple-threats, able to sing, dance, and develop characters. And the five-piece band, led by pianist Kevin Toney’s flashy Waller-licks and Julian Davis’s trumpet, add quality musicianship.
I’ve quoted some lyrics because that’s a key feature the show doesn’t stress. It often glosses over the words, as if the audience knew them by heart. Most, I suspect, don’t. The lyrics can be light-hearted, as in “Handful of Keys”: “I like to sing a little tune that’s mellah/ I like to vocalize/ There’s nothin’ swellah.” They can be up-to-the-second relevant about racial profiling, as in “Black and Blue”: “How will it end? Ain’t got a friend/ My only sin is my skin/ What did I do to be so black and blue?”
And they need to be heard.
987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Ain’t Misbehavin’, conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz, musical adaptations and arrangements, Luther Henderson
Directed by Yvette Freeman, cast: Yvonne, Cynthia Thomas, Ron Christopher Jones, Tony Perry; musicians, Kevin Toney (piano), Danny King (drums), Greg McKinney (bass), Julian Davis (trumpet), and Malcolm Jones (reeds); scenic design, Marty Burnett; costumes, Anastasia Paulova; lighting, Matt Novotny; sound, Melanie Chen; choreographer, Julia Lema; musical director, Lanny Hartley
Playing through August 7; Sunday and Wednesday at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2 p.m. northcoastrep.org