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Doing Justice to Fats, ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ ’

At one point during a recent performance of the Orange County Black Actors Theatre’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’ "--just as George Bouldin was sassing his way through “Your Feet’s Too Big"--an elderly man in the front row stuck his foot in the air and shook it around a bit.

It wasn’t a very big foot, but big enough for him to get involved--"Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” is that kind of show.

The 1978 Tony-winning anthology of the songs Fats Waller either wrote or popularized is all steam and strut, heart and humor. What we have here, on South Coast Repertory’s Second Stage Theatre, is the best of the sultan of “stride” piano’s repertoire, from the signature title number to the sexy “The Viper’s Drag” and poignant “Black and Blue.” They’re all on parade, and if a cast knows what’s up, it can be a stirring tribute to the man who rocked Harlem in the ‘20s and ‘30s.

The Black Actors Theatre, under direction by Adleane G. Hunter and Otis Sallid, did right by Fats, and then some. After a lagging start (the tempo seemed restrained, the style muted), things began to perk with “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do.” The momentum kept up, leading right into a sensational second act.

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As with “Eubie!"--the boogie-chant homage to Eubie Blake that the Black Actors Theatre brought to SCR last year--the staging is simple, even spartan. A few cabaret tables share the Second Stage with the musicians (Richard Abraham, Steve Venz and R. James Jackson), all under Jonathan Wyman’s straightforward but effective lights.

“Eubie!” was a decent production--a little sloppy in places, but still entertaining, mainly because of its unflagging vigor--and “Ain’t Misbehavin”’ is an improvement. Sallid’s choreography is more imaginative and better executed, song transitions are smoother and the acting that helps spirit the numbers is more confident.

The witty Rose Mallet--who stole the spotlight in “Eubie!"--is back for some misbehavin’ here. With her big eyes, pouty mouth and charged voice, Mallet is a major attraction (she’s a blast on the comical “Yacht Club Swing,” among others), but not the only one.

The talent is more evenly balanced this time, and everyone gets to wear the lampshade at the party. These performers, all decked out in Prentis Bonds Jr.'s giddy costumes (confection-colored satins for the ladies, fancy-man big suits, suspenders and bowlers for the gents), communicate a love for Fats and his music. Even when a note is missed or a voice briefly falls flat, the cast still embraces the thrill with living that Waller’s songs are all about.

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Get a load of Henry Weaver enjoying a big dose of himself in “The Viper’s Drag.” Moving his “snake hips” all over the place and crooning about “a reefer five feet long,” he’s a picture of pure egotism. The song may startle with its frank talk about marijuana, and Weaver definitely opens eyes with his writhing, but the number also draws you right in.

So does “Find Out What They Like.” Fats’ primer on satisfying your man gets a lusty womanhandling by Tina Jackson and Delilah Williams, two ample ladies who know how to dish it out.

“Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” takes some moody turns as well. The entire cast joins in for “Black and Blue,” sitting reverently as if they were in church pews and giving this hymn to depression--especially black depression--a measure of sorrow.

The blue moment passes quickly, though. Fats Waller didn’t dwell on sadness; he was more interested in having a good time. This show never strays far from that simple understanding.

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‘AIN’T MISBEHAVIN”

An Orange County Black Actors Theatre production of the musical based on Fats Waller’s songs. Directed by Adleane G. Hunter and Otis Sallid. With George Bouldin, Rose Mallett, Tina Jackson, Michael Larche, Henry Weaver and Delilah Williams. Choreographed by Otis Sallid. Musical direction by Debbi Ebert. Musical conductor and pianist Richard Abraham. Musicians Steve Venz and R. James Jackson. Lighting by Jonathan Wyman. Costumes by Prentis Bonds Jr. Plays Tuesday through Friday at 8:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 and 8 p.m. through Sunday at South Coast Repertory’s Second Stage, 650 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $18 to $22. (714) 957-2602.


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