“LET’S MISBEHAVE”: ACTING IS THE THING THAT MAKES THIS MUSICAL SINGBy Greggory Moore
In Act One it feels like a stretch for International City Theatre to call Let’s Misbehave a book musical. Yes, Walter (Mark Ginsburg) and Alice (Jennifer Shelton) are, as always, the last guests at one of dear Dorothy’s (Lindsey Alley) swell shindigs, dishing on the guests, skewering society and simply indulging in a bit of badinage, until the topic turns to why all three are still single. This is just a lark to string together a bunch of Cole Porter songs, right?
Well, yeah. But when we go into intermission with the three having just made a pact to fall in love by the Fourth of July (why not? The bees and Siamese do it, right?), we’ve got a bit of a story going.
Ultimately, it’s just enough, and we connect with the characters. But it wouldn’t work without three actors. Mere singers never could have pulled it off.
You don’t have to particularly like Cole Porter to admit that his songbook is impressive. Not everything is great. Some of it is even silly. But some is beautiful, a ton of it is clever, and every ounce shows craft. So you certainly may groan at a “Never Be an Artist” and its desperate rhymes, but two songs later it’s “Anything Goes,” you know? Let’s not kid ourselves: this Porter guy can write.
We can move right to a discussion of the singing, since Brian Baker, whose piano is the only musical accompaniment, makes it easy for the stars to do their thing. And the trio’s thing—or things, because these are not three similar-sounding singers—is generally quite good.
Shelton is the least like her cast mates, with an operatic technique that she bounces in and out of. The back and forth can be a bit jarring, and she overuses her vibrato, but her easy strength would seduce any casting director. The woman opens her mouth and pretty much can’t help singing. It’s quite something to hear.
Meanwhile, at all times Alley seems to be getting the very most from her voice, always doing the right thing with her unique instrument. It’s an instrument that naturally slips into an unusual (let’s call it a) tonal accent in certain places, a phenomenon she manages to turn into an idiosyncrasy of her character.
While it’s easy to think of Ginsburg as just the rock (that absolute steadiness, that non-quirky delivery), he’s much more, able to soar feelingly when the moment is right. The disparity of the trio’s voices make for some truly resonant three-part harmonizing, of which you get a sweet early taste via an a cappella stanza of “I Get a Kick Out of You”.
Not only is Act Two where the story picks up, but it’s also when you’re really glad you came out to the theater. A beautifully lit tableau continues to be beautifully lit as it devolves into a quiet conversation between Alice and Walter, which director Todd Nielsen has, by the simple masterstroke of blocking it two rows deep into the audience and letting lighting designer Donna Ruzika bathe in light and shade, becomes a poetic representation of a moment of connection between two souls. Shelton is stunningly statuesque as she stands in the aisle, caught between coming and going in that beautiful light. And when Ginsburg comes to meet her, we’d never be as in on the tender intimacy between the two were they back up onstage.
It’s also around this time that you get what may be your best three performances of the evening. First comes Shelton on “Easy to Love”, which is just…damn, you know? Then comes Ginsburg’s “You Do Something to Me,” projected with such soulfulness that the emotion would have carried up to the cheap seats in Dodger Stadium. Then Shelton’s back with “Let’s Not Talk About Love” (one of Porter’s cleverer constructions), where she takes a page out of Alley’s book and uses the natural slippage into the operatic to comedic effect, making it part of Alice’s emotional expressiveness. It’s a masterful sequence.
Alley’s best moments are not far behind. Musical arranger Patrick Young stitches together “the Goodbye Medley” from “Goodbye Little Dream, Goodbye,” “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (we did say Porter could write, right?), whose transition to the last is worthy of Porter himself. Then comes Alley. She’s already shown us how much control she has. Now she lets us know just how what fantastic things can be done with it.
As good as the trio is vocally, their acting—including in the midst of their songs—is even more impressive. There’s not a lost moment between them, not a missed reaction, not a wrong chord, not a false move. That includes their dancing, as they perfectly maneuver themselves through Nielsen’s engaging choreography. This is acting, kids. Accept no substitutes.
Don’t confuse Let’s Misbehave with last season’s Ain’t Misbehavin’, the musical revue of Fats Waller’s music threadbarely strung together by a forgettable conceit. Let’s Misbehave may not be the most meaningful example of a book musical, but its resemblance to Ain’t Misbehavin’ goes no further than the title, their creator’s desire to theatrically string together the work of a major American songwriter, and the inclusion of Shelton in the cast. With Let’s Misbehave, Patrick Young and Karen Bowersock have managed to manifest characters that exist as more than mere conventions to get the songs sung.
Lucky for them, International City Theatre has provided the actors to pull it off. And whaddaya know? They can sing, too.
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LET’S MISBEHAVE INTERNATIONAL CITY THEATRE • 300 E OCEAN BLVD • LONG BEACH 90802 • 562.436.4610 • ICTLONGBEACH.ORG • THURS-SAT 8PM, SUN 2PM • $37-$44 • THROUGH FEBRUARY 16