AIN'T MISBEHAVIN', Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. In its brilliant original production, this revue of songs by Harlem Renaissance composer-performer Fats Waller was presented as a cabaret. Dominic Missimi's production turns it into a minstrel show. When every joke is illustrated with crude gestures, the director is either insulting his audience or his performers--or both. The entire production is infused with ugly stereotypes: references to being tipsy are accompanied by the behavior of falling-down drunks; references to sex by over-the-top pelvic thrusts. Am I to infer that African-Americans are stupid, generally inebriated, and lacking in sexual self-control? Can you say "welfare queen"? Can you say "Sambo"?
The material is first-rate and the performers are outstanding, but they're trying too hard to please. Marriott's in-the-round stage exacerbates the problem--actors always have another chunk of audience left to court. The smiles are too broad, and there's no excuse for making the musical's signature gesture women jiggling their boobs. Such lack of nuance, which reads in this context as racism, lies at the director's door. Bad enough that Marriott couldn't find any local actors for this production; was there also a shortage of directors comfortable with Waller's subtle, complex artistry? The only performer who rises above the dumbing down is the astonishing Eugene Fleming, who combines Gene Kelly's athleticism with the elegance of the Nicholas Brothers and simply refuses to tug his forelock.