Ain’t Misbehavin’
Through March 25
North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre, Raleigh

As is discussed in our article on the Bull City Black Theatre Festival (see tomorrow’s issue), the Triangle’s African-American stage artists have repeatedly demonstrated a bench deep enough to fill multiple iterations of works by August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry—but the scarcity of such roles still leaves many of them benched.

Stepping out of her usual role as a lighting designer and into the director’s chair, Liz Grimes Droessler attempts to underline that fact—and provide twice as many African-American actors valuable stage time—by double-casting this North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre production of Fats Waller-based musical Ain’t Misbehavin’.

Though it’s a welcome gesture, uneven abilities among the “blue” cast (performing on alternating nights with the “green” cast) and a troublesome sound mix limited the success of this tribute to the brash jazz pianist and Harlem Renaissance stage and screen entertainer on opening night.

The women had the advantage—not entirely surprising, as veteran Tina Morris-Anderson was revisiting her role from Theatre Raleigh’s memorable 2007 production. Here, she threw tasteful shade before “Find Out What They Like,” presided over a raucous version of “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” and touched softer notes in “Mean to Me.”

Aya Wallace came out belting the title number and then offered rewarding comic takes, giving a kewpie-doll twang to the torch song “Squeeze Me” and operatic overtones to “When the Nylons Bloom Again.” Chanda Branch got maximum comedic mileage as a woebegone dance-date victim and was entertaining as the bubble-headed radio singer of “Yacht Club Swing.”

Opening night jitters can make any singer pitchy, but the men, Spencer Jenkins and Juan Isler, rarely seemed as vocally comfortable as the women. Isler overcame this in the satiric “Lounging at the Waldorf” and worked the crowd during a memorable take on “Your Feet’s Too Big,” wearing a yellow suit that threatened to swallow him whole. Jenkins’s madcap reefer-man theatrics almost rendered his problematic vocals irrelevant in “The Viper’s Drag” and a manic “How Ya Baby?”

Production values were uneven as well. Singers and music director Marshall Butler’s band struggled with a sometimes-muddy sound mix on an inexpensive-looking speakeasy set. But impressive ensemble numbers like “T’Aint Nobody’s Business If I Do,” “Handful of Keys,” and “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” still sent an appreciative audience out humming Friday night.