The Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera's "Ain't Misbehavin'" is a song and dance spectacular directed and choreographed by Cleo King. It's based on the music of legendary jazz pianist/composer Thomas "Fats" Waller. Waller wrote over five hundred songs, but all of the lyrics were written by others. He was reputed to frequently head for a recording date after a night of carousing, and make up all the tunes he would play in the taxi on the way.
"Ain't Misbehavin'" is set in a Harlem Jazz Club in the 1930's. There is basically a single set with two variations. A proscenium arch is toward the rear of the stage with an upright piano in front of it at the right, and two tables about halfway back. This leaves plenty of room for the routines to be performed by any of the five actors, while others can sit or gather at the tables. The proscenium arch acts as a doorway to a back room, where the band plays. They can be seen through a red cheesecloth type drapery. The arch is framed in a square by red lights, with a design of piano keys decorating the interior, and the arch in the center is framed in light bulbs. Throughout the show lights flash on the arch at various times.
We open with an old radio show playing Fats Waller's voice and piano. After a chorus line of all five actors in "Ain't Misbehavin' "And Lookin Good but Feelin Bad," we get Waller's first 1922 hit, "'Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness if I Do." A slow, steamy "Honeysuckle Rose" is next, followed by the sensuous "Squeeze Me." In "Hand Full of Keys" we learn all about playing Stride Piano, with one hand playing the big rhythm cords while the other leads.
During the entire show there is a pianist at the upright. He is, as is everyone, in period dress and he has his back to the audience throughout. Rahn Coleman is relentless in his playing. There's all sorts of chaos around him, but he's oblivious. The more chaotic the scene, the more resolutely he plays. He is as commanding of a stage presence as I have ever seen for a performer who keeps his back to the audience for the entire performance. His playing also drives the show and he conducts everything from the piano.
As we move to the end of the act we have a soft shoe duet for "How Ya Baby." He lifts her and swings her around. In "The Ladies Who Sing With the Band" medley, we get Shirley Charles in front the old 30's radio mic she goes from shrill squeals to deep, throaty sounds in "Yacht Club Swing." Tonya Dixon is wrapped in a big purple robe as she slams the mic to the floor and takes control in the syncopated rhythms of "When the Nylons Bloom Again." Jewel Tompkins tries to run off when she's introduced. Stephen Semien grabs her, turns her around and she struts into "Cash for Your Trash." The act concludes with the high voltage quintet swing dancing and jitter bugging in "The Joint is Jumpin.'"
In "Spreadin' Rhythm Around" the quintet are strutting around in fake furs and rhinestones in a soft shoe before the slinky "Lounging at the Waldorf." Big Michael Shepperd sings a raucous rendition of "Your Feet's Too Big" before the bluesy passion of "Keepin Out of Mischief." Shirley Charles is the saucy, aggressive Charlaine in "Find Out What They Like." Stephen Semien and Michael Shepperd are rowdy and crude in "Fat and Greasy," as we move to the infectious finale that has all of the audience clapping in time with the music.
"Ain't Misbehavin'" doesn't have much of a plot on the surface. Instead of a story, it is a slice of the Harlem Jazz Clubs of the 1930's, which is plot in itself. The re-creation of this period of American history is a spectacle to behold. It's music that has shaped all of the popular culture that has followed. In that sense it has molded a big part of who we are as the American nation today. Aside from this The Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera's "Ain't Misbehavin'" is the most entertaining song and dance spectacular to hit Santa Barbara in many a year.