By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Heavier almost than the mood-setting smoke hanging over the Kalita Humphreys stage for the Fats Waller musical Ain't Misbehavin' is the sense of irony that the Dallas Theater Center would choose this show as the follow-up to Topdog/Underdog. Back in March, the theater staged a top-notch production of Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer-winning tragedy about two African-American brothers. It was not a box-office smash at this theater. Just the opposite. Dozens of audience members scrambled up the aisles at DTC and out the front doors before or during intermission at nearly every performance. Season ticket orders were canceled. Ushers and box-office workers were subjected to high-pitched harangues from angry white people incensed at Topdog's R-rated language and bold sexuality.
Granted, Topdog/Underdog was a tough sell to the Highland Park audience. On one level it's about the humiliating roles many black men historically have been forced to assume to survive in a dominant white culture. One of the brothers in the play works in whiteface as Abe Lincoln at a seaside arcade where white patrons pay to shoot blanks at his head. (Parks' symbolism isn't subtle.) Both brothers ultimately feel powerless in their struggle to find a place in a world they feel has abandoned them. Heavy stuff, but provocative and, in the DTC production that transferred here from Houston's Alley Theatre, beautifully, powerfully acted. Disappointing then, but predictable, that so many of DTC's regular audience turned their backs on it.
Well, they can relax now. Ain't Misbehavin' promises just the sort of safe, unthreatening two hours of entertainment customers at too many Dallas theaters feel more comfortable watching when all the actors on one stage are black. There's lots of soulful singing and heels-up dancing in this show. The performers grin real wide and don't take themselves too seriously. They roll their eyes and wink every now and then at the old men in the front row. Why, there's even some knee-slappin' jokes about chitlins for the white folks to chuckle at.
This is not to say that Ain't Misbehavin' is a bad show. It's a good show, as these patchwork musical revues go. And the five people in it--local actress Liz Mikel and four out-of-town imports, Dwayne Clark, Dioni Michelle Collins, Janeece Aisha Freeman and Ken Prymus--are good, too. All those old Fats Waller songs are always a treat to rediscover. Can't beat "Honeysuckle Rose," "The Joint Is Jumpin'" and "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" for jukebox melodies and saucy lyrics.
A hit on Broadway in 1978, Ain't Misbehavin',like Sophisticated Ladiesand Blues in the Night, has become a staple at regional theaters trying to schedule that one big musical every year that showcases some African-American talent. At least the Dallas Theater Center didn't slot Ain't Misbehavin'into the usual spot for the "black shows," February, a.k.a. Black History Month. But they did allow just one local actor into the five-member cast, not exactly an enthusiastic endorsement of Dallas' reserves of black singers and dancers (they're out there, by the way, if DTC had let them audition). Looking ahead to next season, prospects aren't too good. The big musical on this theater's calendar in 2005 is My Fair Lady. Not many roles for black performers in that one.
There's no cussing in Ain't Misbehavin', nobody touching themselves inappropriately (a big complaint at Topdog/Underdog). The handsome young piano player, Darius Frowner, is the real star of the show, pounding away nonstop on an upright center stage. The other stars get nice moments in the spotlight. Collins sings and squeaks like a young Nell Carter. Prymus, who spent seven long years playing Old Deuteronomy in the Broadway cast of Cats, struts and sings his heart out as a thinner version of Waller himself. Mikel's smoky voice and smart timing make the novelty number "When the Nylons Bloom Again" into a neat comic turn. Clark undulates his way around the seductive ode to reefer, "The Viper's Drag." Freeman probably doesn't weigh 90 pounds soaking wet, and she exudes enough energy as she taps and snaps across the stage to light up the Midwest.
The cast milks the final medley for a standing O, which they received at the preview performance reviewed. The audience loved them. And under the applause, you could hear some heavy sighs of relief.
Nothing intrigues a critic more than a hint of scandal, so tickets quickly were procured for a show that wasn't previously a high priority on a holiday weekend. At the second preview, sure enough, nearly half the audience was observed heading for their cars at intermission. But what spurs this mass exodus? The reason, it turns out, is probably not what Pointer and company think it is.
Shakespeare's R & J, credited as "adapted by" Joe Calarco, presents Romeo and Julietas acted by four teenage schoolboys. Dressed in uniforms of gray slacks, blue button-downs and sweater vests, the boys--Pointer, Clayton Shane Farris, Steven Alford, Will Harper--begin Act 1 with a series of classroom lessons in math and Latin. "Amo! Amas! Amat!" they shout in unison. They read aloud what sound like excerpts from a '50s-era social studies book, gender roles clearly defined for men who will run the world and the women who will cook for them. Then they start in on the Shakespeare. Each actor plays several roles, with Alford and Farris taking on Juliet and her Romeo.
You can smell what's coming, right? They get to the ball scene, where Romeo kisses Juliet for the first time. Alford and Farris, playing it absolutely seriously, lay on a big smooch, just as they do later in the wedding scene. They kiss hard, these guys. They grind it. Yes, boys kissing! In public! In Plano! Grab your purse, Margie, we're going home.
Except that's not really the whole story. It would be too easy to blame some boy-boy lip action for angry audience defections. But only a couple of theatergoers at the second preview could be heard grousing about that particular aspect of the show. One lady did burst into the sound booth at the back of the theater to proclaim the play "Pure trash!" as she stomped out. Her appearance so unnerved the board operator, he missed his next cue.
No, liplocks aside, the main reason the audience heads for the hills is that they're bored out of their gourds (the very reason given by the four nice old ladies sitting next to me and my companion). Shakespeare's R & Jis nothing more than an excuse to mount a stripped-down Romeo and Juliet without a full cast, costume changes, set or well-directed performances of the Bard's poetry--basically, without all the things that make a Shakespeare play watchable when done well. PRT's cast is reasonably attractive to look at but miserable to listen to, all weak in vocal training. Line readings vary from loud to louder. Harper hollers his dialogue with all the finesse of a vendor hawking hot dogs in a ballpark. Pointer's way of making a point is to slap the other actors hard on their chests.
The boys stomp, yell, scream and shout on a stark black and white set by Randel Wright. It's like watching Shakespeare done in cell block H at juvenile hall.
By the end of two and a half long, long hours, the young lovers finally get to groping each other's corpses in the tomb. "Drink that poison!" hissed my companion. "And pass it around!"