Laguna Playhouse’s Production of ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ is a Joyous Crowd-Pleaser

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Summer Nicole Greer, Dedrick Bonner, Amber Diane Wright, James Tolbert and Jenelle Lynn Randall star in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at Laguna Playhouse. Photo credit: Jason Niedle.

By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy

When it comes to larger-than-life show-biz greats, few can match the storied life and career of Thomas Waller, the pianist, composer and performer lovingly known as “Fats.”

Waller reveled in life, and his appetites for food and drink were part of his legendary personality as he packed a lifetime’s worth of fame, pizzazz and just plain fun into his 39 years.

In 1978, less than four decades after his demise, Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., wrote a socko musical revue that rolls out one great Waller tune after another. Now, Fats Waller fans can enjoy this popular show in a Laguna Playhouse production that does its subject proud.

The show, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” is named for the hit song Waller co-wrote with Andy Razaf and Harry Brooks for the 1929 musical revue “Hot Chocolates.” As the title number, the broad, pleasing song, the biggest hit of Waller’s career, leads off the show while introducing us to its five performers: Dedrick Bonner, Summer Nicole Greer, Jenelle Lynn Randall, James Tolbert and Amber Diane Wright

The playlist features more than 20 of the prolific composer’s pieces and a handful more he popularized. The music reflects Waller’s brash, mischievous, fun-loving personality to the max. Film shorts featuring Waller reveal his performing style and, of even more import, his stage presence, from the devilish grin and raised eyebrows to the sly, playful expression.

Musical Director Abdul Hamid Royal in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at Laguna Playhouse. Photo credit: Jason Niedle.

A singular talent, and the most popular black entertainer of his time, the impish clown prince of hot piano would mug for the camera, the only performer of the ’20s and ’30s to combine the Harlem Stride popularized by James P. Johnson, Eubie Blake, Luckey Roberts and Willie the Lion Smith with ragtime, jazz, swing and pop.

As this wholly enjoyable revue show points out, the versatile Fats created and performed one type of music for the mainstream, Tin Pan Alley, and an entirely different brand for his fans uptown in Harlem.

In her expertly-chosen ensemble, director Yvette Freeman Hartley has five likable, engagingly personable performers with silky voices and an easygoing charisma that’s potent, yet never overpowers us.

Each skillfully crafts a soft, agreeable persona and stage presence that, like Fats and his music, wins us over not with force, but with charm and grace. The show is as good-natured and fun-loving as Fats himself was known to be, and the catchphrase “One never knows, do one?” is dropped into the staging at key moments, a nudge-nudge wink-wink to us all.

Dedrick Bonner, Summer Nicole Greer, Jenelle Lynn Randall and Amber Diane Wright star in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at Laguna Playhouse. Photo credit: Jason Niedle.

The performers draw us in, inviting us to join them in the revelry of the moment – yet don’t mistake this cast’s laid-back approach as restraint. Never do we feel any are holding back.

At the top of the show, Aaron Rumley’s projection design flashes black-and-white photos of Waller onto Laguna’s stage to give today’s audiences an inkling of his style and personality.

The playlist is expertly designed and schematicized, with canny thematic connections between successive numbers, up-tempo selections alternating with slower, more measured essays, and with various cast members folded into and out of each musical scene.

Tolbert smoothly carries the lead vocals of “T’ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” but Bonner and Greer provide the number’s sass and flair, Hartley creating plenty of stage “biz-ness” for the duo.

“Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint is Jumpin’,” “Jitterbug Waltz,” “Off-Time” and “Handful of Keys” are just a few of the production’s highlights. The music is ever intoxicating, the words frequently ribald, yet both naughty and nice.

Jenelle Lynn Randall and Dedrick Bonner star in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at Laguna Playhouse. Photo credit: Jason Niedle.

Bonner delights us with his rendering of “Your Feet’s Too Big,” comically chiding his lady friend’s oversized “pedal extremities,” while he and Tolbert ridicule a “Fat and Greasy” male pal in a similar, teasing style.

Waller’s works could also be meditative and even near-introspective, as when Randall infuses “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” with melodic vocals and wide-ranging dynamics and pours on the expressive heart-tugging of “Mean to Me.”

The script frequently pairs the cast’s heftier, more mature leads – in this case, Bonner and Greer – while the more youthful Tolbert and Wright are likewise coupled up. Randall, in pleasing counterpoint, is tapped to provide comedy, which also serves to make her serious solo turns even more impressive.

Not everything in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was penned by Waller, a composer who worked with many lyricists. The bulk of Act Two is devoted to pieces Fats popularized through performance, such as “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around,” “Your Feet’s Too Big,” “Mean to Me,” “That Ain’t Right,” and “The Viper’s Drag,” a slow-tempo traditional tune known as “The Reefer Song” that’s easily this show’s most surreal scene.

James Tolbert and Amber Diane Wright star in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at Laguna Playhouse. Photo credit: Jason Niedle.

Likewise, the show’s finale showcases five songs, including “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” written by others that Fats, through his performances of them, turned into hits.

Maltby added lyrics to turn the Waller instrumentals “Jitterbug Waltz” and “Lounging at the Waldorf” into vocal selections, and he and Horwitz wrote lyrics for “Handful of Keys” plus additional lyrics for “That Ain’t Right” (music and lyrics by Nat “King” Cole).

Purely sensational without overshadowing the cast are the five on-stage band members: Fernando Pullum (trumpet and flugelhorn), Wendell Kelly (trombone), Frederick Fiddmont (reeds), Weldon Scott (bass) and Land Richards (drums), who are given the spotlight at the top of the second half.

Musical director Abdul Hamid Royal is even better, the onstage pianist whose presence and playing of a vintage upright are meant to evoke Fats himself. That he does, and brilliantly. The ensemble pulls off choreographer Roxane Carrasco’s appealing dance steps with verve and style, and thanks to Wendell Carmichael’s costume designs, they look great doing so.

As “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a cabaret show, Edward E. Haynes, Jr.’s scenic design of an intimate Harlem nightclub is ideal, beautifully lit by Jared Sayeg and given spot-on sound design by Ian Scot.

At Laguna Playhouse, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a joyous, undemanding crowd-pleaser – a foot-stompin’ evening sure to leave audiences happy to have made the acquaintance of one Fats Waller.

Moulton Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach. Through February 11. Running time (including intermission): Two hours. Tickets: $55 to $94. Ticket purchase/information: 949-497-2787, lagunaplayhouse.org.

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