Of jam 'n' jive 'n' Fats, odd balls and adding machines
Published September 2007
By Carol Davis
Conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz
Directed and choreographed by Patdro Harris
Musical direction by JMichael
San Diego Repertory Theatre
79 Horton Plaza
Through Oct. 14
The Adding Machine
By Elmer Rice
Directed by Daniel Aukin
La Jolla Playhouse
University of California, San Diego
Through October 7
Fats Waller, best known for his "Ain't Misbehavin'", "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Jitterbug Waltz" among others, introduced the score for "Ain't Misbehavin'" in his 1929 Broadway hit "Hot Chocolates" which featured Louis Armstrong. His good friend Andy Razaf wrote the lyrics. In 1934, Fats was introduced to George Gershwin, who was so impressed with the young man's piano playing and singing that he arranged for Waller to record with Victor Records, of which he was an executive. Until his untimely death in 1943, Waller continued to us with Victor as his main recording outlet. Between 1934 and 1942, Waller and his group, Fats Waller and his Rhythm, recorded about 400 sides, well over half of his recorded output. (Source: "Fats Waller and his Rhythm" by Mike Donovan.)
It's no secret why Waller's music is so successful as to have a 1978 Broadway musical revue showcasing his tunes. As an accomplished musician, his name will be forever etched as part of the Harlem Renaissance of the early twentieth century. It's also no coincidence that it was called "Ain't Misbehavin'", based on an idea by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr. It starred Nell Carter, who won the Tony Award for best actress while the show itself won for best musical. It ran for 1,600 performances. Every now and then, it is produced in our fair city and surrounding counties. I can't remember the last time I saw it, save for a week or so ago at the San Diego Repertory Theatre downtown, but it's always mind-boggling, as well as entertaining, to imagine all that talent coming from one man.
The San Diego REP opened its 32nd season with this Tony Award-winning show to rave reviews, even though one of the five original cast members was hurt during rehearsals and a replacement had to step in. With master performer John Steven Crowley heading the Rep's cast, most of the show sashayed along without too many glitches. As one of the strongest performers, followed in a close second by Robert Barry Fleming (who stepped in at the last minute for TC Carson), the two male performers stood head and shoulders above the three women, Lisa Payton, Valerie Payton and Austene Van. And while yours truly had the misfortune to be sitting way off to the side of the house, as the group played to the center, I can only give you my perspective from that point of view.
Directed by Patdro Harris and with one of the most talented jazz quartets heard in some time, I mused to myself that I would have been happy just to be listening to the quartet bang out the music. The four players included JMichael on piano, Kevin Cooper on upright bass, M'tafiti Imara on flute, sax and clarinet, and Danny King on percussion, who sang along with a few of the songs as well. In the second act, they gave us an indication of just what they could do on their own as they individually performed in turn. That said, however, I would have missed out on the lyrics, which are funny as well as provocative.
Some of the most memorable numbers to this reviewer's liking included Crowley's "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Your Feets Too Big." Crowley, whose personality sweeps across the stage from side to side as does his wide and engaging smile, not to mention his lusty baritone voice, is such a strong presence that without him the show would go nowhere. He and Payton, who takes on the Nell Carter role, are wonderful in "Jitterbug Waltz." At any given time, though, the other women ranged from okay to just plain fair. None stood out. Unlike Fleming, whose lithe body is perfect for his great number in Act 2, "The Viper Drag", his dance movements were always on target, although Payton, again was a hoot in "Squeeze Me" with Crowley. The women fared less successfully in both song and dance. Some of the dialogue and even lyrics seemed difficult to understand especially when sung to the center. The moral of the story is to be sure to ask for seats directly in the center.
Robin Roberts' semi-circular art deco set (again for the benefit of the center of the house, but did manage to have steps sweeping along both sides of the stage and were used on occasion for the performers to face both sides of the audience) was indeed colorful and fit the period.
But enough bitching. "Ain't Misbehavin'" is loaded with songs fit for a king with a production that should be sound by now, and if you're in the mood for "Lookin' Good but Feelin' Bad," "Ladies Who Swing with the Band," "Lounging at the Waldorf" (one of my favorites), "Feeling I'm Falling," "Joint is Jumpin'" and a host of others, head downtown and enjoy.
On the odd ball side of theatre, the La Jolla Playhouse is presenting Elmer Rice's 1923 expressionist classic "The Adding Machine," a weird piece about a guy, Mr. Zero (Richard Crawford is excellent as this everyman) who represents all who feel that they are but a number, letter, nonentity or in recent times a Mr. Cellophane trying to survive in a system that's left them behind. Zero works as a department store accountant where he and his assistant, Daisy (Diana Ruppe), routinely add the daily sales slips.
Adding to Zero's woes is his nagging, irritating, pestering, harassing shrike of a wife, Mrs. Zero (Jan Leslie Harding). Dressed like a disheveled street person in need of a good hairdresser, Harding who has a perfect New York accent that just grates on the nerves with that whining, dull, sing/song twang is so believable that it's almost impossible to get her voice out of your head. When the play opens, Zero is sitting in his lounge chair staring out the window while she goes on for about 15 minutes or so in a monologue that criticizes him for not having the guts to ask for a raise since his last one six years ago; his loyalty to his company over the last twenty-five years; her working her fingers to the bone cooking (if you call TV dinners cooking); her lack of a social life; gossip about the neighbors and celebrities; and on and on ad nauseam.
Much to his chagrin, when he finally gets up the nerve to talk to the boss (Paul Morgan Stetler, jogging past him), he gets a pink slip instead of his much desired raise. An adding machine can do his job better and faster, so says his boss. With his quiet rage fermenting, and his last hope of any dignity zapped away, he kills his boss, thinking that prison couldn't be much worse than the hell he's living in now. After eating his TV dinner, that same night they have a weird gathering at their home where their neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. One, Two and Three are laughing, drinking and complaining about all the foreigners in the neighborhood, etc. The police interrupt to arrest him. He is tried, found guilty and executed. And speaking of bizarre, he's executed in the same easy chair we found in him in at the opening of the show, which now becomes a not-so-comfortable electric chair.
Andrew Lieberman's in-the-round double-duty two-tiered set with cut-out circles in greens and oranges has a top set representing home, lounge chair, and work, desk chair and desk in Act I. That disappears before Act II and the smooth lower part ushers in a different world, a different time, with feathers dancing down from the sky, brightly lit colors, trees and greenery donning the transformed arena of the Potiker Theatre.
|The Adding Machine
Contrary to most thinking that the play would take a downhill turn from here, it actually takes off and Mr. Zero, instead of finding himself burning in hell, is in the Elysian Fields where life is a paradise bright colors, singing and dancing abound (Colbert S. Davis IV and Cassia Streb are responsible for the sound design and original music) and he meets his co-worker Daisy, who was so smitten with Zero that she killed herself just to join him in death.
Unfortunately, Zero has been so dehumanized that he can't enjoy life. Even when it's under his nose, he can't accept his change of luck. He demands to be removed from the sin he sees around him and is placed in a room where he operates adding machines. Talk about nutty. But the most fantastic thing that happens is that after years of operating his adding machines, he is sent back to Earth as a baby to start all over again.
The play is funny, sad, depressing and rather nightmarish all rolled into one. If you are one of the thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions who work with a machine, computer or any other modern invention that can ultimately replace you, then you will be able to identify with Mr. Zero, or not. Rice's play addresses that and much more.
Overall the entire production and cast, under the direction of Daniel Aukin, with Crawford coming as close to perfect as Zero as one can get as the disheveled, lost and bewildered picture of the future of mankind, is mesmerizing. Joshua Everett Johnson, one of the bright stars of New Village Arts Theatre, who was also in "The Farnsworth Project" at the Playhouse, is the all-knowing Shrdlu. He showed us his superb acting skills as he moved around the stage like a robot, looking like death warmed over, trying to offer Zero all kinds of choices to be entertained that he, himself, rejected. Everett Johnson is one hell of an actor and one whose career you might want to be following. Both women, as well, showed true credibility as Mrs. Zero and Daisy.
Not a weak member of this large cast could be seen in this unusual play with its highly stylized production values. But most likely, seeing it more than once can only enhance all the innuendos and contributions Rice made to the American theater by using the abstract to reach a deeper truth, rather than by turning to the more realistic approach. It's well worth a trip to La Jolla.
See you at the theater.