Ain't Misbehavin', a review of songs composed or made famous by Fats Waller, ruthlessly arranged by Luther Henderson, Jeffery Gutcheon, William Elliot and (locally) Dello Thedford, is exactly what we all need to chase the winter blues away. Five charming performers and a five-member band lay out more than two dozen of Waller's hits, well known or otherwise, in a couple of colorful hours.
Waller songs, however, present a challenge that more recent popular music does not. Waller worked with some extremely clever, heavily verbal lyricists during a time when popular singers were expected to get the words out clearly and distinctly. Waller himself, even when heavily impaired by too much booze, kept his excellent diction.
For the last 40 or so years, however, pop audiences have not demanded that words be immediately (or ever) understood, and singers, for the most part, whether trained in a conservatory or a garage, just don't bother. Higher voices are usually more difficult to understand, and lower voices, unless singers make a serious effort, don't do so well, either. But clarity is possible, as Wydetta Carter, who makes her St. Louis debut in this production, proves. Whether torching a song like "Squeeze Me" or clowning around with "When the Nylons Bloom Again," Carter's diction and wide range, as well as her gorgeous movement, make her performance alone worth a trip to the (alas) anti-acoustic Grandel Theatre.
Her colleagues don't do nearly as well, although each is an ingratiating performer. Nobody seems to have more fun onstage than J. Samuel Davis, and Eddie Webb can mug with the best of them. Lisa Harris had a cold or something the night I was there, but even so she sang sweetly. Angela S. Arnold, a genuine, certifiable cutie and delightful comic, did an excellent, comprehensible, slow and sexy "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" but lost it on more up-tempo numbers. To be fair, however, I have to say I spent the first act almost as far house left as you can get (bad for sightline) and under the balcony (bad for word clarity), where almost everyone but Carter sang mush. Some (unnecessary) obnoxiousness, for which I apologize, got me way down front for Act 2, where everyone became much more understandable.
John Roslevich Jr.'s warm, inviting set, a nightclub with tables on each side, the band upstage and a dance floor down, is gaudy and elegant at the same time, and Jim Burwinkel's lighting is first-rate. Vivian E. Watt's choreography is unimpressive, as are Fontella Boone's costumes. Everyone was overamplified, and Kim Mixon's excellent bass work would have sounded better on an acoustic bass with pickup than on an electric instrument. Ron Himes' direction, so superior in his rhythm & blues revues, seemed out-of-touch -- not, one feels, his sort of thing. But the Black Rep's Ain't Misbehavin' is more than worth a visit -- the music is wonderful and the performers so good-natured that you'd have to be pretty bitter and depressed not to enjoy it.
Ain't Misbehavin' continues through March 5.