Dramatic Misbehavior

The fantastic songs of Ain't Misbehavin' drown out the story of Fats Waller

The Clarence Brown Theatre opens its new season with an odd choice, Ain't Misbehavin': The Fats Waller Musical Show. The final word in the subtitle was presumably inserted by the lawyers, since while the production is certainly a show—and unquestionably musical—it is in no sense a musical, lacking as it does plot, drama and, in all but the very broadest sense, characterization.

Not that this is automatically bad. If you've sat through any posthumous catalog musical in recent years you'll have probably concluded that the whole thing would be more enjoyable if its contrived, paper-thin plot were dispensed with altogether, allowing a couple more decent songs to be thrown in. Well, that's exactly what's happened here, and taken on its own terms one could hardly complain about an evening listening to Waller, one of the great songwriters of the last century. But what's it doing in a theater, and such a cavernous one at that? The work is a concert piece—a chamber piece, really; a quintet of performers with small-ensemble accompaniment—and while the plentiful bits of comic "business" in Ain't Misbehavin' are more than enough to keep a recital room amused, any right-minded theatergoer demanding illusion, story, and catharsis is bound to feel short-changed. Yes, the music is fantastic, but is that really more of a compliment to the evening than saying the best thing about the production is the set?

Actually, perhaps the best thing about the production is the set: a bold spray of elegant curves courtesy of star-in-the-making Morgan Matens. Full marks also—yet again—to Bill Black's masterful costume department. The on-stage musicians, for their part, are lively enough, yet seldom are they allowed to create sufficient light and shade to prevail over the essential sameness of the musical texture.

And so to our performers. While as singers they're not all quite good enough to warrant such a voluminous showcase, each of them provides something enjoyable and spirited. The rubber-limbed scarecrow Gary E. Vincent is instantly arresting, and though his voice is all but entirely lost in the ensemble, his feet more than amply compensate. Drummond Crenshaw is exceptional in his lower register, but his power has a disconcerting habit of dropping out completely when singing tenor. His are the most assured comic chops of the ensemble, although they're put to use mainly in some rather energetic mugging. Ashlei Dabney is at her brightest in "Yacht Club Swing," but is no match for the strongest voice of the ensemble; that of the generously throated Willena Vaughn. By turns raspy and clarion, Vaughn's full belt is one of the few justifications for the production being in so large a space.

No one can touch Tracey Copeland Halter, though, for pure stage presence. Once again this exceptionally gifted artist proves herself a theatrical Mozart, incapable of anything less than brilliance. Halter delights throughout with that rare and unteachable ability of making every audience member feel the privileged recipient of a performance directed at them and them alone.

But Halter deserves more meaty fare than this. The show's single memorable moment comes in the form of the song "Black and Blue," an aching lament over the tyranny of prejudice. For once, the boomy, uneven sound system is stilled and we are left with five voices in pure a cappella harmony. It's a haunting effect, but what is one to make of it in the narrativeless context of the otherwise fond and goofy lyrics? Is "Black and Blue" an important foil or is it a cheap shot, aiming for a pathos the show simply hasn't earned? It is best considered, perhaps, in the way one considers the skull in Holbein's painting "The Ambassadors." Either the anamorphic skull makes sense, or the rest of the painting makes sense; the viewer must make her choice. Similarly, the sickening gash of racism in the fabric of American art is impossible to understand while engaged in the art itself, even though one could not have existed without the other. (Stride piano, after all, was invented when the 12-hour shifts black bar pianists were obliged to work prompted them to adopt a style that could give one hand an occasional rest while keeping the music going.)

Such trompe l'oeils aside, Ain't Misbehavin' remains the wrong show in the wrong venue. The Department of Theatre could have triumphed by putting it on mike-free in a studio-space, or as a cabaret event. As it stands, the show is certainly not without its charms, and all in all it's about as much fun as an inevitable disappointment can be. Entertaining always, and spectacular often. But drama it ain't.