Cast of 5 imbues Waller with life

Big guy with big talent is focus of `Ain't Misbehavin'

TheaterReview

January 16, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

As is clear from his name, Fats Waller was a big man. But he wasn't just large in girth. The jazz composer and performer had a mega-ton talent and a mega-watt personality.

It takes five distinctive performers who meld into a harmonious ensemble to convey that prodigious talent and personality in the Tony Award-winning musical anthology Ain't Misbehavin', and the quintet at Center Stage does it so well, you'd swear that one of the giant Waller portraits framing the set was winking its approval.

Co-produced with Washington's Arena Stage, where it will have a subsequent run beginning in March, director/choreographer Ken Roberson's production is a bona fide crowd-pleaser. This is due, in no small part, to the cast's skill at accentuating the variety - from comedy to the blues - in Waller's music.

Naughtiness is a trait shared by many of the songs, whether ballads or novelty numbers, and amply proportioned Doug Eskew exemplifies this mischievous spirit. A mellow, affable performer who sings with a smile in his voice, Eskew revels in audience interaction. In "Honeysuckle Rose," he's so thrilled by his ability to sustain the word "stir" to a breath-catching extreme, he delightedly acknowledges the applause.

And when he and the show's other male cast member, Raun Ruffin, launch into "Fat and Greasy," a comic put-down of an unseen, unkempt character, the jovial pair have no trouble convincing the audience to clap along and repeatedly call out the song's title.

In many respects, including this audience-participation interlude, Roberson takes an "ain't misbehavin'" approach to the original 1978 production, which was directed by Richard Maltby Jr., who came up with the idea for the show together with Waller aficionado Murray Horwitz. But though the revue's 30 songs (all written and/or recorded by Waller) are performed in the same order as the original, various interpretive differences lend the show fresh sparkle.

Consider, for instance, Ruffin's delivery of "The Viper's Drag." On Broadway - and in the anniversary revival that played the Mechanic Theatre in 1988 - Baltimore native Andre De Shields put a strong stamp on this marijuana-induced number, performing it with the sinuous moves (and even a hiss or two) of a snake. Ruffin, on the other hand, chooses a sleepy, loping, unsteady-on-his-feet interpretation that sets it apart without suffering by comparison.

Another example is E. Faye Butler and Amy Jo Phillips' spiced-up rendition of "Find Out What They Like." The pair start out as genteel ladies, but as the song progresses, they cut loose with bawdy, hip-swiveling, rumble-voiced illustrations of their theory of how to please a man.

Butler, who starred in Center Stage's 2001 production of Dinah Was, once again proves to be a powerhouse performer. Her rousing, innuendo-laden delivery of "Cash for Your Trash" is the embodiment of sass.

The ensemble's fifth member is Janeece Aisha Freeman, and director Roberson casts her in the guise of a running gag - a gawky, overly enthusiastic young upstart who's continually trying to horn her way in on the action on stage. "I can't stand that woman!" Butler says of her at one point. Freeman comes perilously close to overplaying this deliberately irritating interloper, but she redeems her cheeky character with an unexpectedly sweet, straightforward rendition of "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now."

The central element of designer Neil Patel's set is a giant, old-fashioned, arch-shaped wooden radio, which swivels to reveal a five-man band, led by crackerjack pianist William Foster McDaniel (like most of the cast, he's an Ain't Misbehavin' veteran).

Though Waller has been dead for 60 years, the effervescent performances on this set seem to summon his spirit out of the radio and bring him back to life.

The result is sure to win audience favor both here and in Washington. The first joint production in the history of Center Stage and Arena Stage, it's an achievement that bodes well for future collaborations between these two acclaimed regional theaters.

Ain't Misbehavin'

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays. Through Feb. 23

Tickets: $10-$55

Call: 410-332-0033

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