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'Misbehavin' ' a medley of emotion

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 27, 2002

Anyone going to see Ain't Misbehavin' expecting to see Smokey Joe's Cafe II will be a little disconcerted. Ain't Misbehavin', playing through Nov. 24 at the Angel Cabaret Theatre, isn't the light-hearted, rockin' show that Smokey Joe's is.

Yes, there's an all-black cast, similar to the black-dominated cast of Smokey Joe's. And, yes, there's some jivin' and some blues and lots of good times.

But where Smokey Joe's was all sweetness and light, Ain't Misbehavin' has its somber moments filled with hurt and pain. Understandable; Smokey Joe's was written by two white guys with a good feel for black music, and Ain't Misbehavin' is all Thomas "Fats" Waller -- either his compositions or the songs he made famous -- the epitome of turbulent, segregated, defiant and troubled 1930s Harlem.

For every bouncy Handful of Keys and high-energy The Joint is Jumpin', Ain't Misbehavin' has a soulful Mean to Me, an audacious 'T Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do, and a tragic Black and Blue, where the five-member cast sits stolidly and in perfect, tight harmony, laments being black in a white-dominated world.

It's a great mix of Waller's musically complex songs, each with heft and meaning, and what Waller did with the songs, director William Garon does with his cast. Each one is distinct, and those distinctions tell the story.

Bernice "Sista B" Harley, a native of Jersey City, N.J. and a seasoned international touring show performer, is the soul of the show, caressing the blues in Mean to Me, doing a little scat in the World War II ditty Cash for Your Trash and providing some a slapstick -- and a dose of reality -- when the romantic stuff starts to get a little too mushy.

Her touches of scat, soul and pouty ways suggest that Ms. Harley has a lot more in there to give, but this ensemble show doesn't give her the chance to really show it. Oh, well, let's hope for another time.

T. King, who has performed with Wynton Marsalis, Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole, is the roguish ladykiller with the wandering eye and dangerous ways. In between romancing the ladies on stage and in the audience, King coils and slithers his way through his second-act stunner, Viper's Drag, puffing on imitation reefer and fantasizing about a joint 5 feet long.

King shows his dancing chops with the high-spirited Danielle Alena Rogers, a tiny bundle of dynamite with a huge, well-trained voice, in That Ain't Right, and with the lithesome Lisa Ann Williamson in How Ya Baby.

Ms. Rogers joins the spunky Ms. Harley for a saucy and cynical Find Out What They Like, a lesson in how to manipulate men.

Tall, lanky Tajuan Randolph, a veteran of the national tour of Anything Goes, provides the steady hand, sort of like your best friend's big brother, in the sweet Honeysuckle Rose with Ms. Harley, the romantic Jitterbug Waltz with petite Ms. Rogers, and in the hilariously comic solo, Your Feet's Too Big.

The simple set -- a large semicircle piano keyboard at center and soft, gray half-opened fans at stage shoulders -- shows off the plethora of high-octane glitter dresses and glamor hats the women wear and the rather conservative double-breasted suits on the men.

Opening night's first act musical accompaniment was ear-blasting, but nicely toned down in time for Act 2. As Waller himself might say, "When it comes to the way an audience changes the sound in a room, "One never knows, do one?' "

If you go

Ain't Misbehavin', the "Fats" Waller musical revue, at Angel Cabaret Theatre, 5201 U.S. 19, New Port Richey, through Nov. 24. Shows at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sundays and 1:30 p.m. some Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Doors open two hours before each show for buffet and cash bar. Dinner and show, $32.50; show only, $19.95. Ages 12 and younger, $19.95 and $14.95. Call (727) 847-0019.

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