His right hand was always up to something different than his left. That’s how Thomas “Fats” Waller made a name for himself, by playing rousing piano in the stride style, riffing and running wild lines with his right and creating solid rhythmic structure with his left. His persona matched his style of playing – roguish, unpredictable and full of unexpected fun. The Ahmanson Theatre is currently honoring Waller’s off-beat musical genius with a production of Ain’t Misbehavin’.Waller made a name for himself in Harlem, playing at so-called “rent parties” where guests paid a fee to hear his freewheeling music. He wrote such classic jazz songs as “Squeeze Me” (1929), “Honeysuckle Rose” (1929), and “The Joint is Jumpin’” (1938), music that showcased his dynamic style. The play, which is really a musical revue, highlights some of Waller’s greatest hits with a five-person cast that brings to the stage hits and misses. The standout performers are Eugene Barry-Hill and Debra Walton, both of whom are triple-threat performers. Their energy is channeled into big dance numbers and appropriately exaggerated character types, and their frequent pairing throughout the show saves it from inertia. Act I is a dreadfully long musical revue, with no sign of story in sight. Though the performers mostly hold their own in the singing department, much of the vocalizing is uneven, with bad notes springing up far too often. Most guilty of these off-key moments is Armelia McQueen, who, in all fairness, has some of the more comic songs, written for a clownish voice. But the bad notes are more jarring than funny and McQueen has trouble escaping them even at times when her character isn’t in the midst of a comic moment. On the other hand, Doug Eskew has perfect pitch and a rich, booming voice, but his constant mugging is a distraction. Lastly Roz Ryan, a substantially sized stage presence, shows up with mostly even, pleasing vocals, but there fails to be a big moment for her in Act I.Act II, however, makes up for much of the monotony in Act I. The numbers become part of a narrative that makes audiences begin to care about these characters while learning a thing or two about Waller. The Viper’s Drag aka The Reefer Song is one of the best numbers in the play, owing entirely to the talents of Barry-Hill, who performs it alone. He slithers across the stage in a sultry, seductive dance that conjures images of the song’s titular snake. Hushed vocals slip coolly off his lips as he slides across the stage whispering a sensual ode to marijuana. There are several numbers like this in Act II, moments that pull you into a sometimes hilarious, sometimes deeply sad scene. These gems make Act I worth sitting through. The lighting is one of the best aspects of the whole, and lighting designer Pat Collins should be applauded. Through May 31 at the Ahmanson. Call 213.628.2772.
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