Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, Nashville's beloved and best-known dinner theater, is closing in on its 50th year of operation. The golden anniversary is but three years off, and if there's one word that best captures the Barn's legacy, it's consistency. Owner John Chaffin & Co. have successfully mastered the art of simultaneously entertaining audiences with plays of all kinds while satisfying palates with a diverse buffet.
Following a midsummer mounting of Grease and a recently concluded production of Ken Ludwig's comedy The Fox on the Fairway, the Barn returns to the musical arena with Ain't Misbehavin', a Tony Award winner from the late '70s and a celebration of the giant contribution of jazz and ragtime pioneer Fats Waller.
There's plenty of great music in this revue, which was put together by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz. The co-creators don't provide much in the way of a book, however, save for the occasional linking dialogue or brief interjections designed to help create the illusion that we are in a Harlem nightclub in the 1930s.
The material is mostly Waller-based: Either Fats composed the tune or he brought it to prominence in its day through his spectacular piano work. Included are standards such as "Honeysuckle Rose," "Squeeze Me" and the show's great title song. Among the other ace Tin Pan Alley songwriters represented are Jimmy McHugh, Fred Ahlert, Hoagy Carmichael and Nat "King" Cole. Maltby and Horwitz provide additional or wholly original lyrics for half a dozen of the numbers.
So Ain't Misbehavin' is top-heavy with music all the way, a total of 30 songs delivered nonstop under the direction of Martha Wilkinson, who wisely knows to keep the numbers flowing as her actor-singers move sharply on and off stage.
Yet the burden of proof here is on the performers, and the results are very mixed. The cast, mostly newcomers to the Barn stage, would seem to have enough experience to excel with the rhythmic score, but it doesn't always happen, especially in Act 1.
Ashley Bishop-Diggs, who in 2008 offered a remarkable portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lanie Robertson's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill at Tennessee State University, generally sings well but does little to distinguish herself. The same goes for Julia Nettles, whose prior work has mainly been with community theaters.
The gentlemen seem to face the stiffest challenge. DeVon Buchanan, seen earlier in a couple shows at Street Theatre Company, has energy, but his voice is only adequate (or less so) to the task at hand. On at least one number, he can't dip low enough to grasp the notes, so we simply lose music and lyric. James Rudolph — a frequent performer on Nashville stages who has upcoming roles at Nashville Children's Theatre and Tennessee Rep — sports a spiffy look, but he's mostly acting his parts rather than singing them with any particular gusto.
Veteran performer and Barn regular Kim Nygren fills out the cast, and she vocalizes with professionalism. Her highlight is an emotional version of the classic "Mean to Me."
Early on, we feared the evening's high point would be the new-look Chaffin's garden salad, which featured radicchio, field greens and edamame. (And bravo to that!) But on the positive side, Act 2 is appreciably better than Act 1 — there's a run of solos that better showcase the players' individual talents and provide a sense of momentum as we head toward the big six-song finale.
Tennessee Repertory Theatre recently announced the participants in the 2014-15 edition of their Ingram New Works Lab, leading with the news that Donald Margulies has accepted the honor of serving as the program's distinguished fellow. Margulies, an oft-produced playwright whose works have received many high-profile mountings in New York and at regional theaters, also teaches at Yale. His Dinner With Friends won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and was presented at the Rep in 2001.
Margulies will work on a new play as a part of his Ingram residency, and will also mentor four other playwrights who will be working on their own original scripts. The playwrights are Nashville's Nate Eppler, who currently serves as playwright-in-residence at the Rep; Tori Keenan-Zelt, an internationally produced playwright originally from Pittsburgh; Bianca Sams, an actor/writer who hails from the San Francisco Bay Area and recently finished her MFA in playwriting at Ohio University; and Gabrielle Sinclair, a playwright based in Greensboro, N.C., some of whose works have been developed through the Actors Studio, Chicago's Annoyance Theatre and the writing program at The Second City.
The Ingram New Works Festival will take place in spring 2015, when staged readings of the scripts in progress will provide audience feedback for the authors.
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