Also see Bob's review of The Things You Least Expect
Originally produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club in its cabaret space on East 73rd Street, this five-person revue (with six featured musicians) benefits greatly from an intimate setting. Although still a bit shrill when the high notes are hit in the brassy numbers, the sound here is a major improvement and allows the singers to create lovely, soft and intimate, caressing vocalizations. Is it a forlorn hope that we might someday have the heavenly experience of seeing an unmiked performance of Ain't Misbehavin' with a cast as fine as the one at Two River? "Nobody knows, do one?"
As I noted in 2003, Ain't Misbehavin' is not just a series of songs. As conceived and directed by Richard Maltby, Jr., back in 1978, it re-recreates a style of performance employed by black singers and musicians in nightclubs at least as far back as the 1920s and '30s. This style was built around jazz music, the blues, novelty songs and tap and eccentric dancing, and included dressing up in colorful style, letting one's hair down, smiling through the tears and displaying a bravado which said, "I like me just as I am, and, if you respect that, we can have fun together." As we get further and further from that era, it becomes clearer than ever just how ingenious the creators of this show were to recreate it for us.
The personality of the larger than life Fats Waller is the keystone for the evening. Whether the songs are associated with Waller as composer, sometime lyricist, stride pianist and/or singer, the context makes us feel that they are extensions of his on stage persona. The lyrics are by a variety of writers. The name of Andy Razaf appears more than any other and on the most quintessential Waller songs ("Ain't Misbehavin'," "Honeysuckle Rose"). Several outstanding composers and lyricists of the era are represented. Even such songs as closely associated with Waller as "'T Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" and "Fat and Greasy" turn out to have been written by the largely forgotten team of Porter Grainger and Charlie Johnson. Some of Waller's great instrumentals have been well adorned with lyrics by Maltby. The result is that Ain't Misbehavin' treats us to about thirty mostly terrific songs.
Director Saundra McClain has identified each character with the first name of the original cast member whose role and songs are being performed. For those who saw the original production, as well as those who own the cast album, their names provide a nostalgic reference point which enhances one's enjoyment of the proceedings. Wisely, McClain does not have her performers try to imitate the originals, yet the acting, costumes, and performance style combined with the arrangements and songs are more than sufficient to evoke indelible memories. McClain's energetic staging is never overly frenetic, and allows the more muted colors of the musical rainbow on hand to achieve full resonance.
Whether singing solo or in various combinations with one another, each performer retains his or her individual presence. Our Nell (Carter) is Kathleen Murphy Jackson. Her performance is exemplary. I was especially taken with her "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling." Her beautiful, richly tender voice and perceptive interpretation of the lyric are to be treasured. Lucy Shropshire is the exuberant Armelia (McQueen). She exudes delight singing Squeeze Me. Rebecca C. Covington is Charlaine (Woodard) who wanders into the nightclub where the others are gathered. She delivers a lovely "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now." All of the ladies dexterously deliver the comic high jinx.
The lithe Charles E. Wallace is a most likeable Andre (DeShields). No one may ever again capture the pure insinuating evil that DeShields brought to "The Viper's Drag." However, Wallace's silky smooth dancing and innate charm are a joy in and of themselves. Praise is due to Byron Easley for his excellent choreography here.
James Alexander sings and moves well as Ken (Page). There is no doubting his talent. However, in this instance, the casting is less than ideal. It is this role which most personifies "Fats" Waller himself. Alexander has neither the physical size nor the vocal style to evoke Waller. Ken Page (or Waller himself) is the prototype for the singer of "Your Feet's Too Big" and "Fat and Greasy," Waller's "uptown" exuberant comic gems.
One cannot overpraise the terrific on-stage six-man combo led by pianist Ronald Metcalf. The entr'acte deservedly stops the show. Of course, credit must also go to Luther Henderson's now classic arrangements. Moira Shaughnessy's parade of colorful costumes delight the eye and the settings by Harry Feiner are effectively evocative. I particularly enjoyed the signage for such Harlem hot spots as the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theatre.
Almost every number here is a highlight, from the boisterous "'T Ain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do" to the striding, uptempo title ballad to the heartbreaking "Black and Blue." It is hard to imagine anyone who would fail to enjoy Two River's production of Ain't Misbehavin'.
Ain't Misbehavin' continues performances through October 22, 2006 at the Two River Theatre Company, 21 Bridge Street, Red Bank, NJ 07701. Box Office: 732-345-1400. Online: www.trtc.org/
Conceived and originally directed by Richard Maltby, Jr.;
directed by Saundra McClain