The following review will appear in The Sanford Herald’s Carolina section on Tuesday, June 3.
By BILLY LIGGETT
For one fleeting moment, downtown Sanford may as well have been New Orleans.
Having lived near the Crescent City before coming to North Carolina, I often experienced the “feel” of jazz being played on street corners in the French Quarter, a sound — when partnered with the Louisiana humidity and the smells from local restaurants — that’s as unique as New Orleans itself.
So you can imagine the joy I felt while walking up Steele Street in downtown Sanford on a Lousiana-like 90-degree Sunday to catch the matinee performance of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” only to hear the faint sound of a trumpet coming from the back alley of the Temple Theatre. As I actually passed by the alley, the faint sound became clear, and there I saw a musician warming up 10 minutes before the show.
If I had chosen to close my eyes then, it wouldn’t have been hard to imagine myself drinking a hurricane, eating crawfish and wiping away the sweat, all while taking in a street corner jazz musician five states away.
It was a great way to start my Temple experience. And lucky for me, the show itself only added to the “feel.”
“Ain’t Misbehavin’,” the final show of the Temple Theatre’s 2007-2008 season, is two hours of great music, fun choreography and near-flawless performances from the five-person cast — two men and three women. The show — a tribute to the black musicians of the 1920s and 30s who were part of the Harlem Renaissance — is full of music (nearly 30 songs in all) and light on dialogue. With no real “plot” to it, a show like this can only thrive if the performances are strong, so it’s a good thing there isn’t a weak link in Director Peggy Taphorn’s cast.
We’re treated to the Fats Waller classic, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” to start the show, and Temple newcomer Christopher Berry nails it, his voice as light and crisp as Waller himself. We’re then introduced to Brittany Curry as Armelia, Cindy Hospedales as Charlaine and Mitzi Greshawn Smith as Nell — all three women brilliantly cast and all three hold their own in their solo performances. Hospedales is particularly bright in “Yacht Club Swing,” a song that requires her to perform badly for comedic purposes, and you could only imagine it was a difficult thing to pull off, yet she does so with relative ease.
The breakout performance belongs to Terren Wooten Clarke, who we last saw as a bit player in the Temple’s previous show, “Godspell.” Clarke explodes on the stage both as a singer and a dancer, and his performance of “The Viper’s Drag” — a somewhat controversial tune about the joys of marijuana that dreerily begins with the line, “I dreamt about a reefer five-feet long” — is one of the many, if not the biggest, highlights of the show.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is an enjoyable trip back to an era where jazz was getting its feet and African-American performers were making a name for themselves in the larger cities. While race is topical in songs like “Black and Blue,” it’s not what the show’s about — it’s about having a good time and enjoying great music.
A special nod goes to Musical Director Jan Powell, who plays piano in the production and becomes part of the seven-piece band (the other six reveal themselves midway through the first act). Without the music, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” ain’t going anywhere.
The show is a solid finale to the Temple’s season, and it’s good enough to have audiences wanting more by the time the 2008-2009 season begins.
Want to go?
• What: Temple Theatre’s production of Ain’t Misbehavin’
• Starring: Christopher Berry, Brittany Currie, Cindy Hospedales, Mitzi Greshawn Smith and Terren Wooten Clarke.
• Director: Peggy Taphorn
• Showtimes: Show runs from May 29-June 22; Showtimes are Thursdays at 2 and 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
• Admission: Adult $20 ($16 on Thursday nights), $10 for children/students, $16 for active military, $16 for Lee County educators and $16 per person for groups 10 or more.
• Did you know?: Irene Cara, Nell Carter, Ruben Studdard and Debbie Allen are but a few of the big names that have performed in the musical both on Broadway and on national tours?
• I’m not sure if ‘Ain’t Misbehavin” is the Temple’s first show featuring a full African-American cast, but I think it’s a great idea to promote diversity at the theater. It was a bit disappointing, however, that the audience for Sunday’s show was 100 percent white. Hopefully word-of-mouth will lead to a more diverse audience.
• This was my second Temple Show, as I reviewed “Godspell” last month. Although my review of “Godspell” was mostly positive, I’ve come to realize “Ain’t Misbehavin” was a much better product, enough to take “Godspell” down a few notches. I just had nothing to compare it to for the original review.
• In my review, I mention the feeling of New Orleans I had walking up to the show. Perhaps a good idea for the Temple would be having these musicians playing near the entrace before showtime. Because they don’t actually enter the show until about 20 minutes in, I don’t think it would be too difficult for them to greet the audience, then fill in behind stage after the show begins. Just a suggestion.
• Below is a YouTube clip of Fats Waller performing ‘Ain’t Misbehavin” in 1943. It’s a great clip, and it made me appreciate Sunday’s show even more, because it did a good job in capturing this “feel.”