|Sign up for our FREE weekly newsletter|
Buy an Ad
By Daniel Skora
Fats Waller was one of the preeminent musicians of the 1920s and '30s, a time when American popular music was experiencing a period of unparalleled brilliance and creativity. He was a pianist, singer, composer, bandleader, entertainer and recording artist who left his mark not only as a featured artist in New York nightclubs such as the Savoy Room and the Cotton Club, but also in the recordings he made of songs written by himself and others. Waller played ragtime, swing and jive, and is considered one of the greatest pianists the jazz world has ever produced.
"Ain't Misbehavin', The Fats Waller Musical Show," a 1978 Tony Award winner for best musical, is currently being presented by the Performance Network Theatre of Ann Arbor. The show is a musical excursion through many of the songs that Waller made famous, performed in the various styles in which he was so well-versed.
PNT's production is a show that uplifts the heart and lingers with a pleasant aura long after the players have taken their final curtain. Director Tim Edward Rhoze has pushed all the right buttons, beginning with his five exceptional cast members. Darrian Ford, Jennifer Cole, Kron Moore, James Bowen and K Edmonds ooze talent, not only with their exceptional voices, but with their extraordinary acting ability as well.
Separately, together and in various combinations, the five breathe life into jazzy swing numbers and a few sultry ballads. Though the ladies dazzle throughout, two of the standout numbers are reserved for the guys. James Bowen does a hilarious version of the novelty song "Your Feet's Too Big," and Darrian Ford does a knockout version of "The Viper's Drag," a song that caricatures not only the pleasures to be gotten from the enjoyment of a reefer, but the debilitating consequences that result as well.
Rhoze has placed the show in an after-hours club, where drinks are likely to be nipped from a silver flask and the unexpected arrival of the men in blue is a signal for everyone to scurry for the backdoor exits. A sexual tension permeates the atmosphere as the five patrons move in and out of relationships as easily as if they were picking fruit at the neighborhood market. Each song has a story to tell about the mating game: male-female attraction, misguided love, or how to best take care of your lover.
Scenic designer Daniel C. Walker's set is an inviting brick-walled affair, one flight of stairs down from the street outside. For this run of "Misbehavin'," PNT has created onstage cabaret-style seating, where some audience members can experience the show in the intimate fashion of someone actually at the club.
The musicians arrive one by one, as if just having left gigs at more respectable (and undoubtedly more legal) clubs. First comes R. MacKenzie Lewis on piano, followed by Billy Harrington on drums, Chris Morelli on bass, and Brad Faryniarz on sax. Music may be first priority at the club, but there's a lot of high-steppin' going on, too, with choreography by Robin Wilson.
If the first half of the show is great, the second half is stupendous. Numbers like "Find Out What They Like," "Fat and Greasy," and "Black and Blue" are charged with passion, wit and intensity. The closing number, where each of the five characters imitates the sound of an invisible jazz band instrument, is worth, as they say, the price of admission alone.
The patrons all come to the club decked out in their Sunday-best finery. Costume designer Suzanne Young has orchestrated the outfits using a sepia-tone palette, with all of the clothes in delicious shades of chocolate and glamorously accented with hats, furs and sparkling jewelry.
Santa loves it when those on his list ain't misbehavin'. You're sure to love the energy and pizzazz of "Ain't Misbehavin'," too.
SHOW DETAILS: "Ain't Misbehavin'" was conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz. The show runs through Jan. 1. For tickets and information, call the box office at 734-663-0681 or go online to www.performancenetwork.org. The Performance Network Theatre is located at 120 E. Huron Street in downtown Ann Arbor.
Reprinted with permission of the New Monitor, Nov. 23, 2011
Click here to comment on this review