Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Why Can't You Behave

May 21, 2009

Debra Walton and Eugene Barry-Hill
Photo: Craig Schwarts/CTG 2009

Summer is coming in here in Los Angeles and the city’s stages are currently awash in musical revues. Stranger yet is how well some of them work. The Ahmanson has pulled off somewhat of a surprise with Ain’t Misbehavin’, the oft-revived Fats Waller musical from the late 70s. Admittedly, it was the production which held the least interest for me when the current season was announced, and oddly enough it’s the best thing they’ve put on in the last 12 months with the exception of Spring Awakening. The reason for its quality should be obvious. Many of the artists involved in the original production have returned including director Richard Maltby Jr., choreographer Arthur Faria, Armelia McQueen, and Roz Ryan who replaced Nell Carter after she departed the initial New York run. Traveling such familiar territory with these expert guides is wonderful and the show’s energy never flags. The superior cast is rounded out by Debra Walton, Eugene Barry-Hill, and Doug Eskew. All of them integrate seamlessly with the other players in one of those longed-for productions where there are no weak links. Then, of course, there is the music of Fats Waller. The most interesting thing to me as I sat there soaking up the sheer thrill of the evening was how successful this piece has been over the last 30 years – not simply in its own economic capacity, but in its efforts to preserve Waller’s music. As a man born in the 60s, I’m familiar with many of the song standards in the revue. What’s unusual is that although I was only a child at the time of the original show, it is primarily through Ain’t Misbehavin’ that I know these songs to begin with. A fact that I’d not really appreciated until seeing the production at this point in my life and realizing all my own internal references to the numbers date back to earlier snippets from prior productions. The cultural influence of the show in the last three decades is massive and keeps the work of this great American composer alive in ways that aren’t so easy to achieve anymore. There are shows through May 31 and I can highly recommend you see it.

Vanessa Claire Smith as Keely Smith and Jake Broder as Louis Prima
Photo: Geffen Playhouse 2009

On the other side of town is a very different kind of revue in Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara now in an extended run at the Skirball Kenis stage of the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. Written by its two stars, Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder, the show captures the rise and eventual fall of one of the great musical pairs of the 1950s by focusing on their Las Vegas shows of the period. The show mimics one of those legendary performances with Smith and Prima performing most of the evening in front of their band while Prima recounts some of the major events in their history in an extended flashback sequence. It’s great fun as the audience gets involved as the stand-in for the fictional Vegas audience of the story itself. This show has become increasingly popular here in L.A. over the last year since it has come to rest at the Geffen following its prior existence in a smaller venue. Louis and Keely thrives on the mesmerizing performances of Smith and Broder who veritably channel their characters onstage. The chemistry between the two sparks again and again as they too, fly through hits too numerous to mention. If there’s any drawback to the performance it’s that too little time is spent on the centerpiece performances and too much time is devoted to grafting the music to the play's A Star is Born melodramatic framework under the direction of Taylor Hackford. Hackford joined onto the project when the show transfered to the Geffen helping to add many of the more narrative and didactic elements. And while we don't get James Mason walking into the sea, we do get extended subplots about the relationship between Smith and Frank Sinatra. It's not necessarily uninteresting material, it's just that it's often very tired and somewhat distracting from the show's most exciting elements. Louis and Keely is now running through the end of June often to full houses but it is also definitely worth seeing.


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