Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Sense and Sensibility
Decked in the first half in brightly colored frocks to be replaced by even more colorful and lavish furs, silks and satins in the second (Jasmine Williams, costume designer), the Hillbarn cast members bear the names of the original Broadway stars of 1978 who all returned ten years later for a much-proclaimed revival. When this cast performs as a total ensemble, voices blend exquisitely, as in "Jitterbug Waltz," where rolling, counter-melodies construct a hypnotic, mesmerizing atmosphere as each member also waltzes with an invisible partner. When the heat turns up, as in "How Ya Baby," the five not only sing with abound but also dance with high kicks, side jumps, and body splits while all the time arms and legs seem to move simultaneously in every possible position and direction. Lining up across the stage in "Handful of Keys," they become a piano keyboard, sounding off with notes from the lowest bass to the highest soprano that combine to produce fun and funny.
But it is when at one point all five members sit motionless and solemn on arranged stools that the evening's best ensemble song, "Black and Blue," moves us in a haunting manner. Close harmonies make way for individual lines to be passed from voice to voice in beautiful echoes. Lyrics take on renewed, even more startling meaning given today's Black Lives Matter: "I'm white inside, but that don't help my case; 'cause I can't hide what is on my face." And when they end with "Why was I born?; What did I do to be so Black and blue?," the almost century-old song becomes sadly current, reflecting sentiments of how many Blacks report experiencing life in America today.
Some of the evening's best moments occur when individual performers take the stage solo and/or in duets, giving each a chance to shine and show off a wide range of possibilities. As Armelia, Phaedra Tillery-Boughton early in the show alerts us that there is a down-low, sexually titillating quality to many of these Tin Pan Alley and Harlem club songs that were often originally performed in the wee hours of the morning. As her hips swirl and her arms caress her body slowly and sensuously, her Armelia sings in tempting, teasing manners, "Oh, Daddy, squeeze me and kiss me some more ("Squeeze Me").
For her part, Majesty Scott, as Charlaine, knocks it out of the park as she brings crystal-clear brilliance and a nightclub-star quality to her "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now." Her ability to sell, sell, sell a number is proven again in her solo section of "I've Got My Fingers Crossed."
In the night's first solo ("Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do"), Dave J. Abrams, as André, quickly establishes his incredible talents in two ways: a wowing voice with a sharp edge that cuts to the heart of the song's lyrics and an ability, while singing, to simultaneously twirl, jump, twist, and dip in speeds and heights that are eye-popping. In a totally different genre, his Andrés slithers, swoons, and slides in both voice and movement in a weed-induced, dreamy state in "The Viper's Drag." Somehow, he moves from one side of the floor to the other seemingly without his feet ever leaving the floor.
As Ken, the big bass of the group, Anthone Jackson time and again sings forth in a deep, rich tone that sustains notes most impressively (e.g., "Honeysuckle Rose"), but it is when he turns to comedy numbers that he is the king of the night. His "Your Feet's Too Big" is a big-voiced, hilarious set of insults to an unseen table partner. When he is joined by Dave J. Abrams, the two are like a vaudevillian comic duo with side-splitting one-liners tossed back and forth in "Fat and Greasy." The joy exuding from Anthone Jackson's vocals make it difficult not to smile every time he steps onto the stage (as in "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter").
But, just as it was true in 1978 and again in 1988 when Nell Carter reigned forth and won multiple awards for her Nell on Broadway, Katrina Lauren McGraw is truly the commanding force on this Hillbarn stage, as her presence dominates every time she steps forth. Like Nell Carter, this Nell brings a wonderfully enticing, slightly nasal yet big-throated quality to her numbers that provide an authenticity to the sound of nightclub basements of 1920s New York. Whether with slow, seductive beginnings that soon pick up in energy and speed ("Cash for Your Trash") or with soulful reverberations in tones round and luxurious ("Mean to Me"), Katrina Lauren McGraw proves time and again she is worthy of stepping into the shoes of the incomparable Nell Carter.
There is a slight lopsidedness in the evening's two acts. A three-song comic sequence in Act One ("Ladies Who Sing with the Band," "Yacht Club Swing," and "When the Nylons Bloom Again") is uneven compared with the rest of the evening. Voices sometimes become too affected, exaggerated, and even shrill (the high sopranos, especially). Falling toward the end of Act One, the energy in the room seems to change to something a bit too silly. However, Act Two does not miss a beat from beginning to end, bringing the audience to its feet for a well-deserved standing ovation.
Hats off to director and choreographer Kevin Smith-Kirkwood–with few exceptions, there is hardly a minute that this cast is not moving in coordinated waves, dips and steps, with all parts of their bodies being called upon to sell the songs they are also singing so well. That musical excellence is certainly in large part due to the music direction of Jasmine Butler. Her band of six is a show unto itself, especially with pianist extraordinaire Nancy Godfrey making the keys almost bounce off the keyboard as she gleefully pounds away at a furious speed. The nightclub setting designed by Matt Owens combined with the designs of light and sound by Pamila Gray and Angela Yeung, respectively, do their parts as this director, cast, and creative team ensure that Hillbarn Theatre's production of Ain't Misbehavin' is a fun, funny, and fabulous night of live theatre.
Ain't Misbehavin' runs through March 27, 2022, at Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.hillbarntheatre.org or call 650-349-6411.