Fine dining has a principle that can be paraphrased like this: “If your restaurant serves a simple, homestyle meal with only a few elements on the plate, each of those elements has to be perfect to create an elevated experience.” When those simple elements aren’t perfect, they often create a serviceable meal, but not one that one would expect to pay restaurant prices for. Ain’t Misbehavin’ produced by Live Garra at the Silver Spring Black Box is such a dish, creating some memorable moments and catchy tunes, but ultimately falling short of completing a professional-level piece.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a simple but charming musical revue, containing quality enough to have received both Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Musical in 1978, based around the songs of jazz legend Fats Waller. There’s no plot, just songs strung together in alternating bluesy soul and uptempo humor. The whole thing is a period piece, a mood-setter designed to take the audience back to the world of Black jazz clubs of the 1920’s and ‘30’s. A few solo pieces here, a couple of group numbers occasionally with dancing, and some love duets should equal a pretty straightforward 2 hours of entertainment.
Unfortunately, the entire first act was marred by an inundation of technical difficulties. The vocally challenging but classic jazz numbers of the show were not set up for success. The potentially intimate black box space was left absolutely cavernous, with very little intimacy between stage and seats that one would expect from a musical attempting to recreate a jazz club. There was a no man’s land of at least 6 feet between the unwisely unmiked performers and the audience that, combined with the huge ceilings, completely prevented most sound from getting to the audience. Songs barely got there, dialogue had no chance.
Despite the vulnerability of the unmiked actors, the electronic keyboard was turned up devastatingly loud, performing the coup de grace on the audience’s ability to understand what was be sung or even going on onstage. These problems were the main note, which was supplemented by the end of the first act. There was an incredibly loud and misfired gun sound effect that shot some audience members out of their seats followed by an incongruous dive bombing effect that ended the act on an unfortunate note.
I desperately hoped that the second act would show improvements, and these admirable performers worked hard to create a second act leagues ahead of the first. The sound was much more balanced in the second act, partly because of softer accompaniment, but also because of intimate solo pieces that showed off the best sides of the actors. Colette Williams’ “Mean to Me” had incredible passion and her duet with Mycah Chevalier in “Find Out What They Like” had a catchy charm. Michael Fields’ “The Viper’s Drag” was a nicely campy take on a jazz classic and his duet with Chad Carter on “Fat and Greasy” got the audience going with some warmth and participation. The performers truly broke through that downstage no man’s land to create some intimacy.
Closes October 19, 2014
Silver Spring Black Box Theater
8641 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD
Thursday thru Sunday
Details and Tickets
The design was spartan, made to highlight the performers, but lights, sound, and even misproportioned set got in the way of the performers instead of highlighting them. The choreography was not exceptionally complicated, but it provided challenges to the actors that they were not equal to. The blame for these issues has to lie on the director, who is ultimately responsible for the lack of unifying vision in the show as well as its multiple difficulties.
The takeaway for me from seeing the show is that it was unrehearsed. So many of the problems with the show could be fixed with more time given to the production in rehearsal, from technical miscues to the dance moves that left many of the actors blank-eyed with unrehearsed concentration. My sincerest hope is that over the short run of this play, these problems can be fixed with runs and brush-up rehearsals that coalesce the production into something worthy of the material being produced.
There are sparks of true jazz and soul in Ain’t Misbehavin’ but those sparks need to be kindled with repetitions to make them truly flame. Until then, I’m afraid that I can’t recommend a trip to Silver Spring to see the show.
Ain’t Misbehavin . Music by Thomas “Fats” Waller; Featuring songs (with Waller) by Harry Brooks (“Ain’t Misbehavin'”, “Off-Time”, “Black and Blue”), Harry Link (“I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling”) and Herman Autry (“Yacht Club Swing”) . Directed by Wanda Whiteside . Performers: Mycah Chevalier, Colie Williams, Michael Fields, Quineice Clarkson, Chad Carter . Produced by Live Garra Theatre . Reviewed by Alan Katz.