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Arts & Culture

'Ain't Misbehavin'' marred by wandering spots, challenged deliveries

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Come at me, bro: Sherman Hemsley in Ain’t Misbehavin’

With its production of Ain't Misbehavin' — starring The Jeffersons' Sherman Hemsley — the Josephine is movin' on up… to the most expensive theater ticket in San Antonio. With tickets stationed at $45-$50 (that's 25 bills featuring the other Mr. Jefferson), this inaugural offering of Mark Richter's "Off-Broadway Productions" attempts to plug the yawning gap between SA's many community theaters and the touring shows at the Majestic. It's clearly aiming to be San Antonio's equivalent of the Zach Scott Theatre in Austin, a goal I applaud.

But Ain't Misbehavin' ain't there yet, and last Friday's wildly uneven premiere demonstrates the considerable challenges that confront Richter. As a space, the Josephine could use some love — indeed, the theater encourages love in the form of donations — and the physical production doesn't do the performers any favors: opening night saw some spotty spotlights and some misbehavin' mics. The show's simple set designed by David Morgan lacks the razzle-dazzle of the recent national tour, and the direction by Charles Barksdale sometimes lacks razzle-dazzle of a more metaphorical stripe.

But a talented sextet of singer-actors bravely soldiers on and occasionally triumphs in spite of everything. This anthology of Fats Waller's greatest (and at times raunchiest) hits is simply terrific material. I knew from the first eight bars of "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling" that local actress LiGaya was going to give Nell Carter (as immortalized on the original cast album) a run for her money — and, indeed, LiGaya is worth at least her $8.50 share of the ticket price. (In fact, I'd say she's worth a ten-spot right there: she's dynamite.) Meanwhile, the cast has been unnecessarily expanded from a quintet, and Hemsley seems awkwardly shoehorned into the first act; in the second, however, he takes the stage as our louche and dodgy guide to the demimonde of the Harlem Renaissance. (Hemsley's not an accomplished singer, but the indelicate musings within "Your Feet's Too Big" don't exactly call for bel canto.)

The rest of the cast races to catch up to LiGaya and Hemsley's natural command of the essence o' Waller; there's the rubber-limbed Brian Ridley, and the mischievous Barksdale (with a Walleresque twinkle in his eye). Delores Walker fares less well: her breathy instrument isn't always a perfect match for Waller's tunes. A fine Jacqueline Denise Carter rounds out the cast.

In his director's duties, Barksdale occasionally strands his performers on stage. The wonderfully woozy "Jitterbug Waltz" here emerges as a static dirge with some unfortunate forays into dubious tonality. The staging of the concluding Honeysuckle Band — a spectacular piece of musical theater — doesn't have the clarity and sizzle that it should.

On opening night, Richter noted the small size of the audience and asked patrons to spread the word about this new company. I felt bad for the performers: Ain't Misbehavin' is exactly the sort of rollickin' show that feeds on the energy of a large and vibrant crowd. I've the feeling that if Richter can tighten the production and get more folks into the Josephine for its concluding weekends, there ain't nothing that can keep that joint from jumpin'. •

Ain't Misbehavin'
7:30pm Fri-Sat, 2pm, Sun
Josephine Theater
339 W Josephine
(210) 734-4646
Through Feb 11

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