Last night, I caught a performance of the 30th anniversary tour of Ain't Misbehavin'. I've always been a big fan of the show, and fortunately have a video of the TV broadcast of the original Ain't Misbehavin' cast performing it. Although the current cast members don't fully live up to their original counterparts (how could they?), they nonetheless do a bang-up job of evincing the joy and vitality of the piece.
The Boston stop of the national tour of Ain't Misbehavin' is part of a joint effort by the City of Boston and the Citi Performing Arts Center to renovate and revitalize the Strand Theater, an underutilized gem located in Dorchester, a neighborhood with a significant African American population.
The show is part of a larger program of African American-related events called SpectrumBoston.org, which also features the upcoming Boston premiere of The Color Purple. (The Color Purple, however, will not play the Strand, but rather the cavernous Wang Theater.) It was great to see so many African Americans in attendance at Ain't Misbehavin', and having a grand old time, at that. I would love to see more such efforts in Boston to bring professional theater outside of the narrow confines of the theater district and the South End.
Of course, many of the attendees had come to see "American Idol" winner Ruben Studdard, in the Ken Page role. Studdard is certainly no Ken Page, but he's strong vocally and has a playful presence. Most of the comedy in the role, however, was lost to Studdard's poor diction and obvious lack of stage experience. Studdard wasn't alone in this regard. The one major issue I had with this production was that, while the lyrics were, for the most part, intelligible, most of creator Richard Maltby's priceless asides were lost to indistinct delivery.
The tour also features two additional Idol alumni, the talented Trenyce Cobbins in the Charlaine Woodard role, and Frenchie Davis in the role originated by the late great Nell Carter. Davis was out for the performance I saw, but we instead got to see the terrific Teresa Stanley. The cast also features the dynamic Arthur W. Marks and the adorable Patrice Covington in the Andre de Shields and Armelia McQueen roles, respectively.
Overall, I was struck by the strength of the piece itself, which was created and directed by Richard Maltby at the top of his form. Surely, this is one of the most entertaining and effective revues in musical theater history, eschewing obligatory exposition in favor of a straightforward celebration of the music and artistry of Fats Waller.
Matlby is greatly aided by the superb work of orchestrator Luther Henderson and choreographer Arthur Faria whose collective efforts coalesce into a seamless evening of joy and good humor. Henderson's arrangement of "Black and Blue" is nothing less than stirring, and sent shivers through my body. In a show full of movement, the creators have chosen on this number the have the performers sit still and let Waller's heartbreaking song and Henderson's stunning vocal arrangement do the work.
For the most part, the performances in the current production are sharp, and the staging crisp. And, despite the presence of three "American Idol"-ers, the vocal histrionics were kept to a refreshing minimum. I was initially afraid that this production would be a slapdash effort to capitalize on waning celebrity, but was heartened by the genuine craft and care in evidence. Thankfully, the creators haven't changed the show to suit the talents of the stars, preferring instead to let the piece speak for itself. The show remains a lasting testament to the genius of Waller, as well as that of the creators.
In other news, the tour produced a recently released cast recording, which is currently available only at Amazon.com. The admittedly talented cast comes off considerably less well on the recording, or perhaps that simply my ingrained bias for the original Broadway cast recording talking. Amid the thousands of Broadway CDs that I own, Ain't Misbehavin' is undoubtedly in the top ten for me in terms of recordings that I actually listen to. Maybe even the top five. I find I go back to the CD whenever I need a jolt of joy, and it never fails me. If the national tour comes to your town, I highly recommend that you see it, but as for a permanent record of Waller's music and career, it's all about the OBC.