Swing dancer Richard Riaz Yoder and his willowy partner, Alicia Lundgren, entertainingly tell you that Hunter Foster’s production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” — at the Bucks County Playhouse — is going to be a total rethink of this granddaddy of revue musicals.
Since its 1976 off-Broadway debut, the show’s stagings have generally followed Richard Maltby Jr.’s original direction: Fats Waller tunes augmented by lively choreography and large comic performances from a versatile cast of five.
Foster — who attended BCP’s opening night with Maltby — keeps the dance and shtick while putting an original spin on numbers by setting the entire show in a bar — one smartly designed by Wilson Chin and David L. Arsenault to convey an old-time feel. He also adds Yoder and Lundgren to the ensemble to give choreographer Lorin Latarro more opportunities to provide “Ain’t Misbehavin’” with terpsichorean flair.
Opening in true summer stock fashion after two weeks of rehearsal, Foster’s production is brisk and creative while looking a tad self-conscious and overwrought in ways that may settle into a neater, smoother presentation by the time “Ain’t Misbehavin’” closes on Sunday, September 7.
Foster includes some great bits. “The Viper’s Drag,” always difficult because it is longer, slower, and less witty than most Waller numbers, receives the punch it needs when Foster turns the singer’s marijuana-triggered high into hilarious fantasy that includes appearances by Abraham Lincoln, to whom performer Darius de Haas bows and bellows, “Thank you!” (for emancipation), and Jesus Christ, at whose sight de Haas delivers “Ain’t Misbehavin’s” ongoing tagline, “One never knows, do one?”
Yoder and Lundgren help to keep Foster’s production cooking with show biz pizzazz. The lithe and liquidly Yoder, in particular, dominates the proceedings at BCP. A new character, his dancer is given a single line, but with his feet, arms, head, and seemingly perpetual motion, Yoder is the most expressive and riveting person on the BCP stage. He draws you in as if he was a reincarnation of a Nicholas Brother, giving a varied display of what the human body can do in rhythm while smiling widely and happily, helping to make Foster’s production a joyously kinetic occasion. (Latarro earns mucho kudos as well.)
The BCP cast in general has to use its remaining weeks to acquire Yoder’s ease as a performer. The dancer, undoubtedly acting out and being expressively presentational, works his magic in character, exuding confidence without seeming self-conscious or obnoxious.
With the exception of Adrienne Warren, who aces every single moment she graces the stage, the BCP company needs to be as natural as Yoder with the comedy Foster devises.
You know each of the performers has the goods to make an individual mark because each has a song or number that shows his or her skill at grabbing and holding an audience. Max Kumangai is especially keen with line readings that place emphasis on an unexpected word or syllable. You hear this immediately when he intones, “I don’t blame them, goodness knows,” while presenting the title number. Brandi Chavonne Massey, the most jittery and least comfortable with Foster’s stage business, shows her mettle when doing a straightforward ballad or anchoring the harmony in a haunting full-company rendition of “Black and Blue.” Aisha de Haas also fares best when she sings, without frills, directly to the BCP house.
For all of Foster’s good ideas that change the perspective of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and prove Maltby’s interpretation is not an ironclad Bible for staging the show, the director has not cemented his concept into a fluidly flowing production.
Foster and his cast — except for Warren, Yoder, and Lundgren — tend to push their material, signaling jokes and overplaying one-liners instead of letting them appear to be an inspired invention or an example of show-business savvy.
You can almost see the actors thinking about their shtick and how they’ll put it over, and this obvious cogitation, sort of like seeing a dancer count steps in the midst of a performance, makes the show seem stilted and overdone, a shame because much is of good value, particularly in the last half of the second act.
Warren stands out because she has found a way to blend stage business with the various characters she portrays and has an easy, unexaggerated style that serves material without overselling it.
Warren aside, Foster’s production seems a bit ragged and doesn’t achieve the full effect it promises. Latarro often salvages the day, but dance can go only so far when the comedy seems forced.
David Alan Bunn leads a swinging band that does credit to Waller’s liveliness. Jennifer Caprio’s costumes are outstanding, although a feather or two in the women’s hair causes unintentional laughs. Jon Weston’s sound design is spot-on.
Ain’t Misbehavin’, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, September 7, Tuesdays, 7:30 p.m.; Wednesdays, 3 p.m., Thursdays, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m., and Saturday, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, 3 p.m. $25 to $59.50. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.