There have been more exciting productions of Ain't Misbehavin' than the one currently being served up at the Hattiloo Theatre. The Fats Waller-inspired musical revue has seen more energetic performances. It's known more insightful design. It has been more powerfully sung, more nimbly danced, and more interestingly acted. But I doubt that any audience anywhere has ever been made to feel so at home in a theater where they are invited to become a part of the show without ever being asked to get out of their seats.
This easygoing inclusion is the engine that drives director Dennis Whitehead's engaging, if uneven, take on a popular favorite. His effervescent cast uses Waller's songs as a means of communicating directly to members of the audience as though all the songs about love, life, sex, weed, and other assorted hanky-panky had been composed on the spot and for nobody else in the world. It's a neat trick even if the whole enterprise is a little ragged at the edges.
The best thing about this Ain't Misbehavin'' is that Waller's songs, and not the actors performing them, steal the show — from the delightfully absurd "Your Feet's Too Big" to the brazen "Find Out What He Likes (And How He Likes It)." The latter, beautifully executed by Belinda Campbell and Kimberly Hayes, concludes in a physical demonstration guaranteed to put a blush on every cheek. A.J. Bernard — the show's most calming presence — gets lost in a reefer fog and shares a joint with the audience while crooning his mellow and memorable rendition of "The Viper's Drag."
If you're lucky enough to score a ticket to the closing weekend of Ain't Misbehavin', don't expect to be blown away. Do expect to be sucked in.
Through August 28th
Fans of mid-20th-century design can check out two nifty visual interpretations of the period at Theatre Memphis and Playhouse on the Square. Sets by Christopher McCollum and Jimmy Humphries, respectively, are the best things about TM's take on Bye Bye Birdie and POTS' tightly crafted How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. For McCollum, it's all about shapes and textures, while Humphries explores color, movement, and the social messages of 1960s print advertisements.
Cecelia Wingate — formerly of the Bouffants, a girl-group show band lost in time — is the right person to direct Bye Bye Birdie, the 1960 musical inspired by Elvis Presley's induction into the U.S. Army. But even the creative force behind last season's superb [title of show] and her talented cast can't do much with the dated, never-more-than cute musical that, in its day, functioned as instant nostalgia, celebrating Ed Sullivan, youth culture, and various consumer products.
Wingate gets fantastic performances from the rubber-legged Rob Hanford and Randi Sluder, who plays his comically domineering mother. Amy Polumbo's swim across the laps of a dozen Shriners is a throbbing reminder that Birdie is more about rumba and percussion-driven jungle exotica than it is about rock-and-roll. But if there can be too much of a good thing, TM's Birdie is just that. The plot — what little there is of it — gets lost in all the up-tempo business. On a brighter note, Birdie's teenage chorus is an embarrassment of talent, suggesting that the Glee generation knows something about putting on a show.
Through September 11th
How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is an opportunity to get some distance from and laugh at the same set of attitudes, expectations, and entitlements that tanked the American economy. The thesis: Success isn't about what you know. It's about who you lunch with and what you know about who you lunch with. It's American Psycho with fluffy musical numbers in lieu of bloodbaths: good medicine for those who are depressed about the latest Depression.
Jordan Nichols is perfectly bland (in a good way) as Finch, the window washer who, by following the rules in a self-help book, is able to smile, glad-hand, and backstab his way to the top, only to discover he has no idea what he's doing. Nichols is supported by an outstanding cast that includes a crusty Ken Zimmerman as a philandering CEO and Nick Mason as his nerdy nephew Bud Frump.
A lot has changed since 1961, but, vintage gender roles and all, How To Succeed seems ageless. The Frank Loesser score is no less timely.
Through September 4th