Theater can range from being minimalistic in a small black box to being a full-on production in a large Broadway-like venue. And while those major productions, with an elaborate stage setup and an expansive cast, are a lot of fun and captivating in their own right, there is something really special about small, intimate theater. 42nd Street Moon’s production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” at the Gateway Theatre in San Francisco is able to encompass that small theater feeling, but it falls short in reaching the level of effectiveness that a bigger production would exhibit.
First performed in 1978, “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” is a musical that acts as a tribute to various Black musicians of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s and ‘30s. The play takes its name from a song by Fats Waller, an artist considered one of the most influential of the time for jazz and swing music.
With very little dialogue and a complete lack of plot, this production is not for everyone. It is less of a traditional musical and more accurately a showcase of songs representative of the time period. The songs are performed by a small group of singers, who present these songs as performers rather than characters. The array of musical numbers are meant to convey the nightlife of this time, during which rowdy nightclubs and dives were packed with people looking to have a good time in America’s era of Prohibition.
The content of these songs pointedly addresses these themes, but the feeling of community is lacking. With a cast of just five performers, the atmosphere of a nightclub is hard to convey but could have still be done. The cast, however, lacks the chemistry needed to present a strong group dynamic, resulting in many of the group numbers feeling clunky and unnatural. Meanwhile, the solo performances present the issue of what to do with the rest of the cast. Instead of leaving the stage, the production opts to use them as background players and have them situated somewhere on stage. With the stage being so small, this results in a distracting and awkward-feeling dynamic. It takes away from the person performing the solo and pulls the audience member out of the moment.
The exception to this would be a number from the second act, “The Viper’s Drag.” For this piece, something seems to click for the cast members — just for this one song — and it acts as the most memorable piece of the production. Led by Aris-Allen Roberson, the cast finally finds that synchronicity they have been reaching for and is able to present that seedy nightclub atmosphere. The effectiveness of this number is largely due to Roberson, whose striking stage presence and noticeable talent leads the way through this evocative piece. It is a slow-moving, dragged-out yet immensely compelling performance that somehow exhibits the feeling of living in the moment.
While the group performances pale in comparison to “The Viper’s Drag,” there are other memorable solo numbers. One of the most notable of these solos is “Squeeze Me,” performed by Katrina Lauren McGraw. McGraw does not stand out the way that Roberson does, but once she has the stage to herself, it leaves you wondering how you hadn’t noticed her before. She stands just in front of the stage, placing her at a lower level, and remains static in her place throughout the entirety of the song. In this slow and soulful number, McGraw performs with an undertone of subtle yet strong longing and a passion that seems to be bursting out of her. It is beautiful and striking, and it evokes one of the strongest crowd reactions.
The cast is undeniably talented, and their enthusiasm for the project is one of the most redeeming qualities of the production. The performances aren’t perfect, but the pure intention of presenting a fun night for the audiences is notable. This production is all about celebrating music and having a good time, and with the exuberance from the cast and an audience willing to clap along, it does just that.
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