News Column

Spinning Tree's 'Ain't Misbehavin': remarkable cast, wonderful show

November 7, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 07--Andy Parkhurst and Michael Grayman, founders of Spinning Tree Theatre, have put together their most impressive production so far -- a spirited reading of "Ain't Misbehavin,'" the 1978 musical revue that celebrates music written or recorded by Fats Waller.

Parkhurst and Grayman co-directed and co-choreographed this show, and they brought together an exceptionally gifted cast. The Saturday night performance wasn't seamless, but the stumbles had nothing to do with the talent onstage. They had to do with the venue: the Just Off Broadway Theatre.

The former public works building in Penn Valley Park is a nice, intimate space with a deep stage, but its acoustics are treacherous. On Saturday the sound mix was variable, rendering some of the clever lyrics and banter unintelligible and allowing the excellent band to drown out the singers at times.

That and a chronically imprecise spotlight were the biggest flaws in an otherwise well-executed show that showcased some remarkable talent.

The production unites three of the strongest women vocalists in Kansas City -- Jennie Greenberry, Eboni Fondren and Linnaia McKenzie -- and introduces two remarkable male artists, Ron Lackey and Matthew King, to a wider audience.

The ensemble is backed up by crack band consisting of drummer Julian Goff and bassist Brian Wilson, who have performed together so often that it's easy to think of them as a team, and musical director Angie Benson, whose muscular work on a real upright piano gives the show an authentic foundation.

The comically rich piece stitches together good-humored songs about affairs of the heart -- or, in some cases, less romantic areas of the anatomy -- as well as the corporeal pleasures of food, drink and marijuana.

Presumably because the creators, Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz, were acutely aware of their responsibilities as white guys using the music of a great African-American artist and directing an African-American cast, they tempered the pervasive frivolity with the inclusion of "Black and Blue" in Act 2. This meditative lament on what it meant in the 1920s and '30s to be black in white America is a sobering reflection on race. And by implication it raises a simple question: Have we really progressed all that much?

Greenberry performs with all the poise and elegance of a star and exhibits her laser-sharp sense of comic timing as she contributes her share of musical highlights, including the mournful "Mean to Me." Fondren, performing with earth-mother authority, demonstrates her ability to belt ("Cash for Your Trash") as well as a flair for comedy. McKenzie, a firecracker and the shortest performer on the stage, has a thunderous voice of her own and brings a gleeful love of performing to the stage, never more evident than in her memorable rendition of "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now."

Lackey, a big man with an immovable stage presence, can handle smooth ballads as well as novelty songs and provides a show-stopper in the form of the deliriously absurd "Your Feet's Too Big." In contrast, King is a lithe performer with a dancer's grace and a seductive, liquid voice. He's at his best with "The Viper's Drag."

A major plus in this production is costume designer Shannon Smith-Regnier, who clothes the actors in eye-popping suits for the men and vivid gowns for the women.

Whenever I see a production of "Ain't Misbehavin'" I inevitably think of the uniquely inventive and larger-than-life Waller dying on a train in Kansas City in 1943. Nowhere is a celebration of his artistry more appropriate, and this production honors his creative genius with style.

The show

"Ain't Misbehavin'" runs through Nov. 17 at the Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central. For more information, call 816-569-5277 or go to SpinningTreeTheatre.com.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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(c)2013 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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