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Ain't Misbehavin' -- Theater Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
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There are several ways to enjoy "Ain't Misbehavin'," the 1978 finger-popping Fats Waller musical. For sheer sit-back-and-enjoy-it pleasure, it's hard to fault a show featuring 30 of the cleverest jazz, swing and funky novelty songs ever written -- even if a few probably are unknown to you, which makes them all the better. This is a show that not only chases the blues but also practically pounds them into submission.

Looked at from another angle, "Misbehavin' is a kind of all-purpose primer on the battle -- and the bafflement -- of the sexes. From the sweet, succulent strains of "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Lookin' Good But Feelin' Bad" to "How Ya Baby" and "The Jitterbug Waltz," the songs on display offer indispensable advice and sage commentary that no red-blooded male or female should be without. What could be more to the point than the witty "Find Out What They Like" ("and how they like it, and give it to 'em just that way")?

Not that Waller wrote those words; he didn't. Andy Razaf, his longtime partner and Tin Pan Alley lyricist, penned them along with several other of the best numbers. But the toe-tapping music and mischievous spirit behind them is pure Fats.

Each of the five performers has a distinctive singing or presentational style that suits the music. Armelia McQueen can smother a playful number like "Squeeze Me" in sexy baby talk, and Roz Ryan can belt and growl with the best of them. Debra Walton, a fresh, young face, is an irresistible, high-energy dancer and singer with talent oozing from every pore. Eugene Barry-Hill's otherworldly rendition of "The Reefer Song" ("I dreamed about a reefer five feet long") is a definite high, and Doug Eskew's amusing take on "Your Feet's Too Big" is a charmer.

The problem with a show this eager to please is that over time it can become too polished. Some of the numbers appear to be choreographed down to the last smile, frown or raised eyebrow. Waller and slick don't necessarily mix.

On occasion, Waller would put aside his feel-good music and aim in a different direction. He and Razaf scored a bull's-eye with "Black and Blue," one of the bluntest, rawest songs ever written about race. The company does it full justice.

Richard Maltby Jr., who co-conceived the show with Murray Horwitz and directed the original Tony-winning production, is back to direct, along with Arthur Faria, the original choreographer.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles (Through May 31)
Cast: Eugene Barry-Hill, Doug Eskew, Armelia McQueen, Roz Ryan, Debra Walton
Conceived by: Richard Maltby Jr., Murray Horwitz
Director: Richard Maltby Jr
Choreographer: Arthur Faria
Musical adaptations/orchestrations/arrangements: Luther Henderson
Supervising music director: William Foster McDaniel
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Lighting designer: Pat Collins
Sound designer: Tom Morse