Also see David's review of An Evening With Sutton Foster
Ain't Misbehavin' makes going to the theater as much fun as misbehavin'.
Ain't Misbehavin', a musical salute to Fats Waller (1904-1943), scratches the surface of his composing brilliance with 32 of his songs. Remember, Waller wrote over 400 songs and 32 songs is only a small fraction of his complete catalogue.
The show is performed by five singers: Rebecca Covington, Angela Grovey, Christopher L. Morgan, Ken Robinson and Aurelia Williams. In addition, a seven-piece orchestra with Darryl G. Ivey (conductor, keyboards and musical director) play a major role in the success of this production.
Emily Beck (scenic designer) has created a workable setting for the performers. The orchestra is center stage and moves upstage and downstage depending on the music. Beck left plenty of room for the athletic dancing, choreographed by Byron Easley (musical staging/ choreographer). Easley moves the performers through dance steps from the Waller-era, yet the dances are new and appropriate for each song.
Austin K. Sanderson (costume designer) has dressed each performer in stage-worthy costumes that move with the dancers and provide support for each character. For example, for the song "Lounging at the Waldorf," each singer is smothered in fur (or fake fur)even the men have elegant fur coats.
Ain't Misbehavin' is another of the shared productions that helps both performers and the production companies. This show was cast in New York City and has had runs in two Arizona cities with the support of the Arizona Theatre Company. Now, it plays in the Cleveland Playhouse through February 21, 2010. Following the Cleveland performances, the company moves to the San Jose Repertory Theatre for another run.
The cast is equally balanced: not a weak link on the team. However, some songs tend to make a performer first among equals. For example, Christopher L. Morgan makes "The Viper's Drag" and "The Reefer Song" erotic high camp. Morgan makes his entrance from the loft of the stage, riding in on a bar and a rope. He is shirtless and flexes his pectoral muscles to the delight of many of the ladies in the audience. The dance is slow, sinuous and sexy. But, Morgan is playing with the audience and Waller's music to the delight of the audience.
When Ken Robinson performs a salute to the woman whose ".. Feet's Too Big," he earns plenty of laughs as he sings and dances in rejection.
Angela Grovey and Aurelia Williams make the comic song "Find Out What They Like" a show stopper as they sing in praise of finding what men like and giving it to them. It's naughty, bawdy and excellent stage work.
Rebecca Covington has a strong, pure voice that seems impossible coming from a woman that small. Does she weigh 100 pounds? When she sings "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now," she belts the song to the top balcony.
My favorite song for content and production in the show is "Black and Blue." The five singers sit in chairs facing the audience and do not move. At the end of the song, they continue to sit, frozen in face and body. Even as the audience cheers, the performers still do not move. When the lights goes to black, they regroup for the finale.
Kent Gash (director) does an excellent job helping his cast create characters to sing the Waller favorites. This type of production is difficult for any directorGash had to be faithful to the composer and lyricist, work with the cast, and bring together the production team to create an audience pleasing show. He was faithful to the spirit of Waller's music and that is important.
At the performance I attended, some members of the audience groused because the production was not always faithful to the music of Waller. They forget this is a theatrical production with actors acting the songs. Certainly, we don't have to go far to find others singers doing the same thing with other music (look at what has happened to Rodgers and Hammerstein's songs). This is a theatrical production and the performers play a different character for each song.
And, they do it beautifully. Don't miss Ain't Misbehavin' if you're in the Cleveland area or later in San Jose.
Ain't Misbehavin'at the Bolton Theatre in the Cleveland Play House January 29 - February 21, 2010. Ticket information: 216-795-0000, ext 4.
The next show in Cleveland Play House will be Jane Austen's Emma, February 26 to March 21.
- David Ritchey