Ain’t Misbehavin’ brings the music of Fats Waller to life at the Laguna Playhouse

By MARRIE STONE

Photos by Jason Niedle

Whether you’re 9 or 90, whether you listen to rock or jazz, whether you’re a Fats Waller fan or you’ve never even heard his name, none of it matters when it comes to how much you’ll enjoy Ain’t Misbehavin’, now on stage at the Laguna Playhouse through Sunday, Feb. 11. Though Waller’s music is nearly a century old, you’ll hear influences of it in today’s pop, country, gospel, jazz and blues. Even if you don’t know the songs, the tunes will sound familiar to your ear.

Travel back to 1930s Harlem and pull up a chair inside your favorite nightclub. Maybe you enjoy high society establishments like the Cotton Club or the Savoy Ballroom. Or maybe you like those dive bars down on Lenox Avenue. No matter. The joint is jumping with piano players banging out tunes that are at once raucous and rowdy, but also reflective and mournful. You’ll hear dozens of Fats’ songs like “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

Director Yvette Freeman Hartley and actor Dedrick Bonner joined me to talk about the musical, what it’s meant to them and how their relationship with it has evolved over time. They also shared their perspectives about Laguna Beach, and why our town is the perfect venue for this show.

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(L-R) Summer Nicole Greer, Dedrick Bonner, Amber Diane Wright, James Tolbert and Jenelle Lynn Randall star in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” now playing through February 11 at the Laguna Playhouse

Hartley has a long history with the musical. She starred in the Broadway production when it premiered back in 1978. “I learned so much about performing while doing this show,” she said. “This is a good show to learn on because each song is a scene, and each song tells you something about Fats Waller. You’re telling the story with the songs and with the five players on stage.”

First staged in the 1970s, set in the 1930s, now revived again in 2024, it’s a show that stands the test of time and may be even more fun and relevant today than ever before. “This show is a true testament to the power of music,” said Bonner. Now in his 30s, Bonner first starred in Ain’t Misbehavin’ 13 years ago, shortly after moving to Los Angeles. “It proves that music is truly a universal language. Even though the world is ever-changing, people still experience hurt. They still experience isolation. Everyone – no matter their race, color, gender, sexuality – everyone experiences those things. That’s why it’s still relevant in 2024.”

Though the musical’s message remains relevant and universal, the actors have evolved. Bonner brings a new perspective to the part since his first performance more than a decade ago. “Thirteen years later, here I am getting to do this as a fully realized adult who can relate even more to all the subtext and layers of the songs,” Bonner said. “[Today I bring] a greater understanding of life, but also a lot of trauma. My father passed since I did the show. My grandparents have passed. I’ve lost so many aunts. There’s a place I can tap into now. I understand what these lyrics mean more than I could in my 20s. There’s a depth now because I’ve experienced so much life in those 13 years.”

One of the songs that hits Bonner the hardest is “Black and Blue.” “Those lyrics – I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case; ‘Cause I can’t hide what is on my face – they can really get to you.”

I asked Bonner how it feels to bring that pain to the stage night after night. “Yvette said something very powerful,” he told me. “She said, ‘I want the audience to feel that emotion. Give that to them. Allow them to [experience] it. But don’t you get lost in it. Don’t you get trapped in that space.’ Which is a unique problem to have with a show that’s so joyous and fun.”

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The five-member cast has been compared to Fats Waller’s five fingers playing the piano. Their synergy on stage is palpable.

Despite those few maudlin songs, the show really is pure fun. “It’s a funny, wonderful show that will leave you feeling great,” Hartley said. “No matter what age. Especially during these times when [we all] want to sing, dance, laugh. This show brings out the joy and the love.”

What helps beyond the powerful music, strong script, skilled choreography and expert direction is the synergy of the cast. Turns out, the five actors have been close friends for years. So close that Bonner and co-star James Tolbert have plans to be in each other’s weddings. Unbeknownst to anyone – and completely by happenstance – they all wound up starring in the same show.

“Talk about divine intervention,” Bonner said. “You need that, especially with this show. Even though we’re five different characters, we’re all part of Fats Waller. We’re his five fingers. We’re each a finger in his piano playing. You need that bond off stage for it to [look authentic] on stage. It’s been nothing but a joy and a pleasure to put this show together with all my best friends.”

He’s also enjoying the chance to return to the Laguna Playhouse stage, where he first performed back in 2016 in a production of Final Arrangements. “I fell in love with Laguna and wanted to come back,” Bonner said. “Laguna’s audience is a bit different from that of other theater companies. Even though it was a predominantly white audience, they stayed after and asked so many questions. They’re an educated audience and they trust us. It’s their openness and willingness to go with us on any journey, regardless of what the journey is. And it could be a crazy one.”

For Hartley, 45 years later, the show is all about giving back. Sitting off stage in the director’s chair doesn’t bother her a bit. “I’m giving back in all areas of my life at this ripe old age,” she said. “I’m doing what I should be doing at this time. I write. I coach. I have a garden at home. I have a husband who’s a musical director and we may be doing a show later this year. You gotta keep going. I can’t stop that muscle of singing and performing. I just move it into other directions.”

Fats Waller never made it to a ripe old age. He died at 39 of pneumonia while traveling back to New York from Los Angeles after the smash success of “Stormy Weather” and a successful show at the Zanzibar Room in Santa Monica, where he fell ill. More than 4,200 people attended his funeral. Today, almost exactly 80 years later, we’re still celebrating the sounds that influenced the generations of music that followed him.

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James Tolbert and Amber Diane Wright bring the music of Fats Waller to life on the stage

Ain’t Misbehavin’ runs through Sunday, Feb. 11. Performances will be Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. There will be added performances on Thursday, Feb. 1 at 2 p.m. and Tuesday, Feb. 6 at 7:30 p.m. There will be no performance on Sunday, Feb. 11 at 5:30 p.m.

Tickets range from $55-$94. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit their website by clicking here.

Laguna Playhouse is located at 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. For more information, visit https://lagunaplayhouse.com.


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