While watching the opening night of Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the Cincinnati Playhouse, I kept wondering, “How could so much of the Fats Waller revue seem so perfunctory, mechanical and tired of itself?”
Well, here’s a point to ponder: Director Arthur Faria, music director and pianist William Foster McDaniel and four of the five singer/dancers (Eugene Barry-Hill, Julia Lema, Cynthia Thomas and Debra Walton) were involved in a 2009 revival at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. Several cast members have been in other recent touring productions. Faria, who staged the dances and was nominated for a Tony when the show opened on Broadway in 1978, has devoted much of the last 30 years to directing revivals.
There’s much to be said for experience. There's also something to be said about creeping ennui.
Maybe that’s not the answer, but the question remains on the table. As the show barreled along, there was no end to the energy — or was it frenzy? And there was no shortage of style — or was it shtick? Whichever, there was too much motion and too little music.
When Lema and the cast’s one newbie, Doug Eskew, tackled “Honeysuckle Rose,” shtick took over and the song all but disappeared. Eskew has two expressions (bugged eyes and a toothy smirk) and about six gestures, all of which grew stale before the end of Act I.
John Lee Beatty’s set, Pat Collins’ lighting and Gail Baldoni’s replica costumes are fresh and dazzling. And occasionally the show shines musically, as when the company charges through “Lookin’ Good but Feelin’ Bad” and during “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” and “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” in the finale. And especially in that one welcome moment when they just sit, sing and let Waller’s music dominate for “Black and Blue.”
AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, presented by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through May 29. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.