Back in the Depression, folks short on rent money would gather a set of musicians, buy booze and charge cash for entrance into their apartment. Voila! Just hope the landlord doesn't have any decibel requirements.
The original 1978 conception for Ain't Misbehavin' -- a revue of songs popularized by the Harlem jazz pianist Fats Waller -- designates no particular setting. In this exciting and soulful Encore! Dinner Theater production, director Hugo Sayles transports us to an imaginary "rent party" like the ones frequented by Fats, in which the cast members mingle, argue and, of course, sing and dance in the midst of a piano covered in half-full liquor glasses, rollicking bass and drums, and a sketched city skyline.
Initially, you might feel a little overwhelmed by the let's-put-on-a-show razzmatazz, but as at any good party, you have more fun the better you get to know your co-conspirators. The gregarious Lonnie (played by Lonnie McCabe) emerges as the first fully fleshed-out character: her toughness, snide comments and unabashed friendliness welcome us into the fold.
Her foil, the eager-to-please Darla (Darla Herndon) is more pouty and showy. In one scene, Lonnie gloats to Darla about her success with a man, "If you wasn't so stuck up, this would be you!" By the second act, however, in songs such as "Mean to Me," Darla reveals a proud indignation and becomes a dominant character in her own right.
This production belongs mostly to the women. Lonnie and Darla, plus the slinky VanNessa (VanNessa Perry), make up a power trio of attitude and depth. However, the men also snag some glory: the dapper Vince (Vincent Robinson) gets carnivalesque in "The Viper," flapping his tongue and issuing such lines as "I feel so effervescent today" in a hilariously drunken lope. He and his elder, Ed (Ed Battle), get the most out of the wicked "Fat and Greasy," in which the audience clapped along and shouted the title in unison.
The play actually gets better as it gets meaner. We want a good time, but we also want a real party, and real parties have tensions, slow moments and bummed-out interludes when you know someone is in the bathroom crying into his gin. Ironically, the Depression-era first act is brightly lit and upbeat, as if the cast members hope to rise above their tattered nylons and cheer themselves up.
In contrast, Act Two summons up the blues. Despite new pearls and furs made possible by the war-time economy, the characters vent their frustrations with fewer reservations. Almost immediately, Ed jabs the comfortable audience members, who have spent two hours eating shrimp bisque and drinking cocktails: "Looks like you're all just lounging at the Waldorf."
The show reaches its apex in the astonishing "Black and Blue," an early protest song and deserved jazz landmark. The whole cast takes part in this luminous tune, singing such lines as, "Life's just a thorn / Why was I born / What did I do to be so black and blue?"
These adept players have been misbehavin' for a year now, in Littleton and Boulder. This is the first time they have performed at a dinner theater, and although accustomed to a different setup, they improvise well, taking wise advantage of the increased intimacy.
The Encore! building, new in this location, still requires work: A dividing screen might have diminished the cavernous feeling. No matter. Misbehavin' is an effortlessly choreographed, musically tight and entertaining historical trip that also manages to be good for you. Pass the shrimp bisque.