Ain’t Misbehavin’ at The JET is a never-ending grin
WALLED LAKE, MICH.–Ain’t Misbehavin’, the current offering at the new Jewish Ensemble Theatre, is not just a nostalgia piece about New York’s black nightclubs and music dives of the 1920s and 30s and Fats Waller music. It is a vibrant ensemble piece celebrating the art and lives of some of the most creative people of the last century that inspires the mind and delights the soul.
The show, developed in the 1970s, is a review of music by Waller and other artists of the era. There is little dialogue. The songs are performed in vignettes. There is no real through-line of a plot. But there is an arc to the order and selection of the songs that makes sense and feels like a kind of musical narrative.
Best of all, forget you are in a black box theatre in Walled Lake, which this superior cast enables the audience to do, and you can easily use your imagination to take you to The Cotton Club between the World Wars.
Alvin Waddles music directs the show, sits at the piano and plays all the songs, sings and serves as a Fats Waller-like presence around whom the other performers revolve. Waddles is a treasure, with wonderful piano skills and a perfect touch for this music. It’s hard to know what he has ad-libbed versus what is in a script if you have not seen the show before. It doesn’t matter, because he is the host and sun of the show, and he illuminates the music and inspires a smile that may last a week. Songs like “Fat and Greasy” and “Feets Too Big” are from a whole other time that seem way out of step with today, but we have more than enough permission to enjoy the genre with these actors.
The cast of singers around Waddles–Lauren LaStrada, Jason Alan Briggs, Ashley Lyle and Elizabeth Ann Gray are so connected to the music and to one another that the show comes across as a sequin-studded fabric of this music and time.
The selection of the songs allow the actors to change their characters. In Lounging at The Waldorf, Ms. Gray is a society matron, but in other songs she can be sexy and smoothe. Her range, too, is impressive, going from swing to near operatic. Ms. LaStrada has long established her chops at inhabiting a song, not just singing it, as when she portrayed Billie Holiday in Lady Day. She is equally adept at utterly slaying you with a solo here, and teaming up with Ms. Lyle or Ms. Gray in a group piece. Ms. Lyle not only has wonderful vocals and great range, but spot-on comedic timing in her acting. Mr. Briggs is a bigger-than-life presence on stage. We have seen him before in Shakespeare plays. He fills the Jet stage every time he struts his stuff as in songs like The “Viper’s Drag.” His relatively young age is not an impediment to him in performing songs from the era. He looks and carries himself like he could walk into a Lenox Avenue dive during the Calvin Coolidge years and take the place over.
These actors are super tight in their connection to one another, in a good way. Open just a week, they perform as if they have been doing this show for a year. Directed and cast by Harold Jurkiewicz, the show was destined to be great after the auditions concluded.
Mary Copenhagen does an exceptional job of dressing the actors. There are frequent costume changes as each song is treated as its own performance on different nights in different venues. Every actor never doesn’t look gorgeous and of the time. And when the ladies are on stage together, they look totally complimentary.. The hats…the hats are a thing to watch throughout the show. It is of a different time, and she must have had a ball choosing and coordinating them. Lighting designer Neil Koivu manages the stage within the stage lighting to great effect. And sound design and management by Jim Davis is exceptional, especially in this new space, which was a store before Jet adopted it as their new performance space. Emily Willemse’s stage and set design works well to place us in a kind of “any club of the time,” while the actors convey they are in clubs of differing status with different songs. Stephanie Baugher is technical director and Greggory A. Patterson choreographed. There is scant dancing in the show, but what there is works perfectly mated to the music and vocals.
It’s difficult to find a measurement tool for the smiles this show produces. But as much as the Waller-era music and stories assembled by Luther Henderson, Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horowitz delight, the show and cast also brings us together for a face stiffening and teary few moments as the cast delivers “Black and Blue.” It’s a song about living as people of color in a world that too often, then as now, qualifies people based on the color of their skin. It’s a helluva moment in the show.
And it moves the show from from 1919 to 2019 in a hot second.