The music of the Harlem Renaissance lives again in Long Beach as five sensational triple-threats perform the music of Fats Waller in International City Theatre’s snazzy revival of the 1978 Tony-winning Best Musical Ain’t Misbehavin’.

 Director Saundra McClain puts her personal stamp on the venerable musical revue* by setting it “Now and Then” on “A Stormy Night in Harlem,” with a shy young 21st Century New Yorker (Niketa Calame as Niketa) seeking shelter from the rain at one of those Manhattan nightclubs that flourished in the 1920s and ‘30s like the legendary Cotton Club or the Savoy Ballroom.

It doesn’t take Niketa long to realize that she is not alone in the club as the ghosts of four gone-to-glory entertainers (Phillip Brandon as Phillip, Amber Mercomes as Amber, Lacy Darryl Phillips as Lacy, and Jennifer Shelton as Jennifer) return to the land of the living to entertain their visitor and welcome her as one of them for the next two acts.

Fats Waller’s rambunctious, racy songs of another era may not be everybody’s cup of java (they aren’t particularly mine), but no one can quibble about the performances of ICT’s impressive quintet of stars, each of whom gets his or her own solo spotlight in addition to duets and full ensemble numbers.

Booming-voiced Phillip is the bigger-than-life stand-in for the irrepressible Fats himself, and never more rambunctious than when telling his lady friend in no uncertain terms that “Your Feet’s Too Big.”

 Voluptuous Amber proves herself the Queen of Sass & Sizzle as she invites her man to “Squeeze Me,” then commemorates the WWII “Stocking Panic” with the deliciously daffy “When the Nylons Bloom Again.”

Party-loving Lacy defends his right to womanize in “‘T Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” then slithers seductively through the R-rated “The Reefer Song” aka “The Viper’s Drag.”

Sweet, petite bundle-of-mischief Niketa dons sailor garb to sing and swing the “Yacht Club Swing,” then vows to be “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” though one has a sense that she won’t be keepin’ out of it for long.

 The svelte, stunning Jennifer croons a sultry “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling,” shows off some glamorous gams in “Cash for Your Trash,” and tongue-lashes her lover with a torchy “Mean to Me.”

Ain’t Misbehavin’ gives its cast plenty of song opps to join voices: Phillip and Jennifer in “Honeysuckle Rose”; Lacy opposite Niketa in the flirtatious “How Ya Baby” and opposite Phllip in bot “Ladies Who Sing with the Band” and the audience sing-along “Fat and Greasy”; and Amber duetting “That Ain’t Right” with Lacy and “Find Out What They Like” with Jennifer.

Full ensemble numbers have the cast “Lookin’ Good but Feelin’ Bad,” saluting those ebony-and-ivory 88s in “Handful of Keys,” jivin’ to “The Joint is Jumpin’, extolling the many pleasures of the “Jitterbug Waltz” … and more, including the evening’s most dazzling display of five-part harmony, “Black and Blue.”

And that’s not all, as the cast wraps up the festivities with a medley of songs Fats didn’t write, but turned into hit covers: “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “Two Sleepy People,” “I’ve Got my Fingers Crossed,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” and “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” and the fact that these are among the evening’s best-known numbers makes for a bang-up grand finale.

With McClain in the director’s chair, ICT’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ becomes considerably more than a mere musical revue, aided and abetted by Stephen Semien’s lively choreography and musical director Rahn Coleman’s tickling of the ivories (and backed by a sensational four-piece onstage band).

Then there’s the cast, beginning with leading lady Shelton, two-time Scenie-winning Lead Actress (for Man Of La Mancha and One Touch Of Venus), who combines cover girl looks with a voice as gorgeous as they come.

And speaking of gorgeous voices, they don’t get any more breathtaking than Mercones’, pipes that can fill the room with operatic splendor one moment, then belt out big and brassy the next.

Ball-of-fire Calame, fresh from her scene-stealing turn as Squeak in the multiple Scenie-winning Musical Of The Year The Color Purple, once again ignites the stage with her one-of-a-kind blend of cutes and sass and vocal chops to match.

 Brandon’s imposing yet amiable stage presence and rich resonant pipes make him the ideal choice for the Fats Walleresque role originated on Broadway by Ken Page.

Finally, there’s the dynamic Phillips, a cross between Sammy Davis Jr. and Ben Vareen in their younger years, bringing down the house with his ebullient, show-stopping “Reefer Song,” among other hits.

 Ain’t Misbehavin’ looks like a million bucks on the ICT stage, beginning with scenic designers John Iacovelli’s richly-rendered Harlem nightclub set, decorated to period perfection by resident property designers Gordon and Patty Briles (and property design assistant Chris Briles) and vibrantly lit by lighting designer Ben Pilat. Resident costume designer Kim DeShazo really gets to go to town with Ain’t Misbehavin’s glittery, glamorous period garb, i.e. plenty of furs and feathers and other fabulous finery. Anthony Gagliardi’s hair and wig design complements DeShazo’s costumes quite splendidly, and though the cast seems at times over-miked, Paul Fabre’s sound design is otherwise first-rate.

caryn desai is producer, Pat Loeb production stage manager, and Michael Donovan, CSA, resident casting director, with Richie Ferris serving as casting assistant.

The Harlem Renaissance may have lasted only a few short decades, but it spawned or spurred the careers of (among others) Louis Armstrong,
Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Bessie Smith, and the one-and-only Thomas Wright Waller, better known as Fats. Ain’t Misbehavin’ pays the immortal Fats Waller tuneful, toe-tapping homage, and even if your tastes run more towards Motown than swing and jazz, you will be hard-put to dispute that the ICT’s latest ends its 2012 season with a musical bang.

*Conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz

International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
October 12, 1012
Photos: Suzanne Mapes

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