I adore theatre experiences where there are no worries whatsoever about anything involved with it, and zero negatives, where you can just relax and enjoy yourself. And that’s exactly what Ebony Repertory Theatre’s production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center is. It’s a happy evening of theater all around, which you know I love.
So for my fellow SoCal denizens who are smart enough to stay in town this upcoming holiday week-end, I heavily suggest that you use part of it to see this show. (It’s due to close on May 28th, so keep that in mind. All the info is at the bottom of this review.)
I wanted to see Ain’t Misbehavin’ so badly last week-end that I actually passed on watching an NBA play-off game live to do so! Those of you who know about my sports obsession understand what a big deal that is. But I had confidence that Ain’t Misbehavin’ would be worthy of that sacrifice because of the previous presentations I’ve seen from the Ebony Repertory Theatre. Also, I had seen a production of this musical at the Ahmanson a long while ago, so I knew that it’s a really fun show. (And as soon as I looked in my program and noticed that Yvette Cason is in it, and John Iacovelli had designed the set, that confidence grew.)
And I was well-rewarded with a production that is so good, in fact, that I never once looked at the time! I think that’s a first!
If the title sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the 1978 Tony-winning Broadway musical which was inspired by, and features, the music of Fats Waller, which made a star out of the late *Nell Carter, who won a Tony for her performance, as well. Although many of the songs in it are by other composers and lyricists, Fats is the person who popularized all of them. And he wrote the music for the classic title tune. *[Note: I share a personal story about Nell at the end of this review.]
Before I laud everything about this classic musical, I must first give props to the Nate Holden theatre itself. I’ve had a fondness for the place ever since I first visited over a dozen years ago, so I was happy to introduce my friend Marc to it. I’m proud to say that all of his first visits to every theatre in Los Angeles have been with me, and I’ve enjoyed seeing his reactions to them. And I’m happy to report that he went nuts over this one! (And over the show itself, too, of course.) The place is soooo comfortable, with a gigantic lobby, to boot. And there’s free valet parking attached! I especially respect that no gum is allowed in the actual theater, along with the banning of food and drinks. Perhaps that’s why it’s stayed so beautiful for all these years.
Now to the production itself. The night we were there, there was a party atmosphere all around. The actors, musicians, and audience were all in it together. The enthusiastic audience cheered from the get-go: first when the musicians came on stage, then again for the conductor, and then for the cast.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ is basically a revue, which means it’s just songs with no actual story. But it’s not just singing—it’s charming and incredible performances, with perfect movement and choreography by Dominique Kelley, all directed by Wren T. Brown. That pair makes excellent use of the various talents of the performers.
The quintet of gifted actors—ladies Yvette Cason, Connie Jackson, and Natalie Wachen, and gentlemen Wilkie Ferguson, III and the amazingly light-on-his-feet Marty Austin Lamar—are all first-rate, and sell every moment of the action. They’re a great mix of voices, physicalities, and personalities.
This is the fourth time I’ve seen the wonderful Yvette Cason, but the other performers were new to me; I hope to see them all again soon.
And let’s not forget the on-stage musicians: Land Richards, Keith Fiddmont, Fernando Pullum, and Dwayne “Augie” Augustine, all led by Musical Director William Foster McDaniel on piano. We all stayed after the curtain call to hear the musicians finish-up, and applaud them once again.
The setting of Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a cocktail party in a brownstone in Harlem circa the ’20s and ’30s. To that end, the set is perfection! But I wasn’t surprised because it was designed by the late *John Iacovelli, whose sets I have lauded many a time through the years. This one really set the scene. Many years ago, when a friend of mine inherited a similar gigantic and old-fashioned brownstone in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn, I had the good fortune to explore that time warp. And let me tell you, that is exactly what this set evoked! *[Note: There’s a bit more on Mr. Iacovelli at the end of this review.]
Actually, everything about the presentation made me feel like I was in the ’20s or ’30s during it, especially the fabulous old-fashioned songs. (This is a musical, after all.) In addition to the title tune, there are plenty of well-known ones, including a few where the audience gets to sing along a bit. Some you might recognize are The Joint Is Jumpin’, Honeysuckle Rose, and I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, which I first heard as a little girl!
I loved hearing Your Feet’s Too Big, which I’ve always gotten a kick out of, possibly because that is something no one can ever say about me. (Once when I was getting a massage, the masseuse stated laughing when she got to my feet, and explained that’s because of my “cute little cartoon toes!” Oysh.)
The most powerful parts of the show are when the cast sings together, even in the comic songs, (which most of them are.) But Black and Blue, Act Two’s penultimate number, (before the “Finale” of a handful of upbeat songs, which reminded me of the end of a fireworks display, when many of the best ones are shot into the sky together,) broke my soul. I’ve never truly listened to/understood the words before. [Note: In the theatre, just as I wrote that note after the assemblage performed that song, Marc leaned over to me and whispered, “Powerful,” as well. And we rarely agree on anything!]
Speaking of agreeing, I think that everyone who has seen this latest rendition of Ain’t Misbehavin’ agrees that it’s an uber-worthwhile evening (or afternoon) of theatre. So I highly recommend it to everyone. And remember—this Thursday-Sunday is your last chance to see it before it closes!
Ain’t Misbehavin’ running through May 28, 2023
Nate Holden Performing Arts Center
4718 West Washington Boulevard Los Angeles
Now here are the aforementioned two notes I want to share with you:
The very sad one is that I was shocked and overwhelmed when I saw a beautiful note by Wren T. Brown in the program to set designer John Iacovelli that began, “Beloved John, You were…” I had just been hoping that Mr. Iacovelli would be happy when he read another appreciative review from me. I had no idea that he had passed just a month ago! I feel awful for the loss to the world, of the man and all the beauty he had yet to create. My heart goes out to everyone who loved and admired him. May he rest in peace. I’m especially sick that I hadn’t taken a picture of his beautiful set to share with you.
The other note is that I had the privilege of meeting the great Ms. Carter about a year before she passed, when we did the Chabad telethon together. She was kind enough to seek me out to tell me she was a fan of my television show, which gave me the opportunity to tell her that I was a fan of her everything! She was adorable. My friend Carole who was with me seemed surprised that Nell was on a Jewish telethon, so Nell explained that she had converted to Judaism for her second husband a couple of decades before. And now she’s buried in the local Jewish cemetery that I plan to be interred at. Maybe I’ll hear her incredible voice there once again.