Ain't Misbehavin
Artists Repetory Theatre
Through Dec 17

To Portland theater audiences, Harlem of the 1930s might seem as foreign as a thatched hut in medieval Europe. How then--without the use of dialogue--can the performers in Ain't Misbehavin a musical show based on the songs of Thomas Fats Waller, get the audience to identify with their subject and care about it?

Basically a muscial revue, Ain't Misbehavin allows those on stage to present a number of characters, and allows the audience to project on them whatever back stories they desire. The play is both hampered and helped by the complete lack of dialogue.

The five singers in the show include Edward Barker, Abduel Hall, Brenda Phillips, Quigley Provost Landrum, and Lisa Strum. Dan Gaynor, a four-piece orchestra and piano player accompanies them. As they make their way through 20-plus musical numbers, the cast become new lovers, jilted trysts, compatriots, competitors, pot-smokers, drunkards, sluts, and saints. With some verbal burlesquery and a touch of fancy dancing, the quintet offers some enjoyable and often funny takes on songs which have long since passed from old standards to elevator music and back again.

Of the two male performers, Barker has the bigger voice and more convincing swagger; Hall can dance better, but is often drowned out by the band. Phillips is a standout most of the time especially on naughty numbers like 1925's "Squeeze Me," but her upper range is sometimes piercing. Landrum and Strum are both vocally pleasing, and while the former gets more serious numbers, it's the latter who get to swing dance and belt out a purposefully bad "Yacht Club Swing."

Ain't Misbehavin is an infectuously good time, and you will leave humming some tunes. The biggest disappointment was in the lily-white audience on a Sunday afternoon; disturbing to note that an all-black revue was not attended by a single African-American.