Kuntu Repertory Theatre's production of the Fats Waller-inspired musical revue Ain't Misbehavin' has some problems. At the opening-night performance, the production was plagued by technical difficulties, followed by an unfortunate false start which ultimately delayed the curtain by half an hour. When at last the show began (for the second time), Ain't Misbehavin' proved to be a mixed bag -- not exactly worth the wait, yet not entirely disappointing.
It's easy to understand why Ain't Misbehavin' has endured. With its infectious blend of jazz and blues, the show conceived by Richard Maltby Jr., is a toe-tapping celebration of Waller standards including "Honeysuckle Rose," "The Joint Is Jumpin'" and, of course, "Ain't Misbehavin'." The music soars despite the contrived and cobbled-together narrative that, for reasons never quite explained, is performed by a group of characters portraying modern-day homeless people who have been transported back to 1940s New York.
It's an odd choice by director Timothy Ware (whose staid direction and limp choreography stall the production), seemingly utilized for no other reason than to bring a sense of purpose to the show's disjointed structure. Under his guidance, the production feels as if it were slapped together at the last minute, rehearsals having been rationed with little attention paid to detail. Several of the performers struggle under the massive load of 30-plus songs, the music overpowering their limited voices.
Nevertheless, the production does offer a few bright spots, most notably the extraordinary voices of Stevie Akers and Tasha Michelle. With each note, Akers' expansive vocals tell a richly detailed story that continues long after the song has ended. Michelle, meanwhile, gives Waller's music the respect it deserves, thrillingly wrapping her voice around each song while also displaying impeccable comedic timing that carries the show through its weaker moments.
With a clearer vision and a stronger cadre of performers, Kuntu's Ain't Misbehavin' could be a show worthy of Waller's mantle. But in its current state, it's simply a well-meaning homage.
Ain't Misbehavin' continues through Sat., May 31. Kuntu Repertory Theatre, Alumni Hall, 4227 Fifth Ave., Oakland. 412-624-7298