Out There :: Human Misbehavior

  • by Roberto Friedman
  • Saturday October 28, 2017
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42nd Street Moon is currently opening its 25th anniversary season by presenting "Ain't Misbehavin'," the musical revue devoted to songs that Fats Waller made famous, playing the Gateway Theatre in San Francisco through Oct. 29. Directed and choreographed by Jeffrey Polk, with music direction by Dave Dobrusky, the show seems to suggest that the company has moved on from its self-described mission of presenting "lost" or neglected musicals, and has now decided to go for shows that may not be obscure, but are remembered or renowned for good reason. People love them.

This production of "Ain't Misbehavin'" gives the audience everything it came for: classic jazz, blues and stride piano, delivered by a crack band with Dobrusky on the keys, and sung by a cast of five appealing performers who sell every number with joyful good spirit.

Every cast member gets at least one chance to shine. In "'T Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" (from 1922), Aris-Allen Roberson shows off his resonant voice, sinuous dance moves, and spry athleticism. "Handful of Keys" (1933), a paean to Waller's signature style of stride piano, features Ashley D. Gallo in a paroxysm of parody pianism, with the company backing her up in spirited musical pantomime.

Branden "Noel" Thomas gets to showcase the dexterity and luster of his bass voice on the classics "Honeysuckle Rose" (1939) and "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" (1933). Katrina Lauren McGraw can be kittenish on "Squeeze Me" (1925) and mock-strident on the retro-anthem "When the Nylons Bloom Again" (1943).

With her powerful pipes, in the role that Nell Carter originated on Broadway, Erica Richardson is convincingly dreamy on "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling" (1929), sultry on "Mean to Me" (1929), and spunky on "Cash for Your Trash" (1942).

The quintet makes beautiful harmony together in "Black and Blue" (1929), the one number when the show lets the cast sit down and really take stock. It's Fats Waller addressing social-justice issues and the lived experience of being black in America. Sadly, the central conceit of its punning title is still relevant in 2017.

Out There saw the original Broadway production back in the 1970s, had fond memories of numbers such as "Lounging at the Waldorf" (1936) and "The Viper's Drag" (1934, a reworking of the traditional "The Reefer Song"), and was happy to have them rekindled by the Moon production. We had the songs' lyrics roaming our thoughts for hours afterward - "I can't give you anything but love," "It's a sin to tell a lie," "I dreamed about a reefer five feet long, a-might, immense, but not too strong!" - words that were, shall we just say, the tiniest bit triggering.