North Coast Repertory Theatre has produced several revues in the last few years. Side by Side by Sondheim and Words by: Ira Gershwin and the Great American Songbook honored timeless musical artists. For the end of season 34, the organization picked the Tony Award winning Fats Waller tribute, Ain’t Misbehavin’.
Staging the latest version in Solana Beach is Yvette Freeman, who some theatregoers know from her work on “ER “ and Orange is the New Black.” A fun fact about Freeman is that she starred in the Waller theatrical piece for a period of time on Broadway.
Over 30 songs written by the singer/jazz pianist/composer are performed by five residents of Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s. They sing tunes with topics that include lust, romance and race.
Sound mixer, Melanie Chen, sets the tone with an overture that uses audio of Waller playing the title musical number. In the introduction audiences get to hear his voice, composition skills and sense of humor.
Wearing stylish costumes from Anastasia Paulova, the ensemble evokes many emotions during the evening.
Cynthia Thomas sensually sings the innuendo-laced melody, “Squeeze Me,” and is prone to diva behavior in the Opera-esque song, “When the Nylons Bloom Again.” Thomas gets to be both a scene-stealer and team player. She knows when to take advantage of a comical vignette and when to let the other performers shine.
Singing about the ups and downs of love is Anise Ritchie. “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” and “Mean to Me” are two polar opposite numbers.
Although the former tenderly depicts rising passion, the latter references a flawed relationship. Each song leaves audiences moved, because of Ritchie’s affecting renditions.
With an exaggerated New York accent, Yvonne’s interpretation of “Yacht Club Swing” is hilariously over the top. This particular comedy number builds to an unusually grand finale.
Making for a charismatic comedy pair are Tony Perry and Ron Christopher Jones. Their duets, “Ladies Who Sing With the Band” and “Fat and Greasy” are catchy as well as irreverent.
Just as expressive as the cast is the band led by pianist/conductor, Kevin Toney. One of their big times to shine is a wordless opening to Jones’ solo, “How Ya Baby.” They play together with fast tempo instrumental work. Every second of the Act 1 prologue is fun to hear.
Choreographer, Julia Lema, based her movements on dancing from the choreographer of the original New York incarnation, Arthur Faria. His moves tie in perfectly with the music played onstage.
Neither act of Ain’t Misbehavin’ disappoints, but the second half manages to be even more amusing. Act 1 is consistently entertaining and Act II has plenty of special moments. Several of the biggest jokes are used in songs like “Your Feets Too Big,” “That Ain’t Right” and “The Viper’s Drag.” What also allows Act II to stand out is the use of the most powerful song of the eve.
A serious ensemble number is the jazz standard, “Black and Blue.” With only piano accompaniment from Toney, the leads sadly lament about racial inequality.
It’s not just the music that has an impact. Freeman stages the scene on Marty Burnett’s set like a painting with practically no physical movement from the stars. She, along with Matt Novotny’s lighting, allows for a little bit of grimness in a generally upbeat event.
If viewers miss the run in Solana Beach, they can see a limited engagement at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido from August 11-14. That theatre provides a larger type of venue to experience the breezy evening.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ stuns from beginning to end due to Freeman’s spirited direction and Waller’s beloved music. There was a five year gap between this summer and the last time Freeman told a story at Solana Beach Hopefully, she won’t wait as long for her next outing at North Coast Rep.