Also see Tim's review of Sleeping Beauty
The music of Fats Waller is virtually guaranteed to make you smile. Even if you've never heard the rollicking style of jazz that Waller popularized in the 1930s, you'll probably find it's impossible to resist. And so is Ain't Misbehavin', the 1970s revue of Waller's hits that has been splendidly brought back to life at the Prince Music Theater. (Any show that can get its audience to sing along to a song called "Fat and Greasy" is a show that's doing its job well.)
Mind you, the Prince didn't have to do too much to make this a good show. Richard Maltby, Jr. constructed the show in 1978 as two hours of virtually nonstop music, with only a few lines of dialogue here and there. It almost seems that all you need to make it work is to hire some people who can sing and dance. But the Prince has made a few discreet changes, neither of which harms the show. First of all, in addition to the principal cast members, Director Richard M. Parison, Jr. has added four extras who sit at tables at the edges of the show's nightclub stage. They don't have much to do besides look happy and interact with the principals a bit, but they're attractive and they make the show look a bit less bare.
The other change the Prince made was to augment the main cast slightly. Maltby conceived Ain't Misbehavin' for a cast of two men and three women, but at the Prince we get two men and four women. The change was likely made to accommodate the production's star attraction, Tony winner Melba Moore. Despite her star billing, however, Moore takes a backseat to her co-stars at times; she's sometimes a step behind during the dance numbers, and she's curiously absent from the stage for long stretches, including the five-song World War II montage that is the centerpiece of act one. Yet she makes up for all of that with a sultry version of "Squeeze Me" and a soulful take on "Mean To Me."
Ken Prymus, a veteran of the original production, puts the audience on his side with his warm, gregarious manner and his hilarious asides to the audience during "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Your Feet's Too Big." There are also lively turns by Eugene Fleming (who makes the most of Mercedes Ellington's snappy choreography), Chanta C. Layton (a powerful blues belter), Andrea Dora (sweet as can be) and Gabrielle Hurtt (feisty and funny on "That Ain't Right"). Add a hot onstage band (pianist Bill Jolly is the leader, although Eric Barnes filled in on opening night) and tasteful design touches (watch the way the lights behind the bandstand change color on every song) and you've got a show where everything fits together nearly perfectly.
Ain't Misbehavin' might seem an unusual show to stage at the holidays; after all, none of the Christmas songs Waller recorded are sung in the show. But there's no show in town that will make you feel more jolly.
Ain't Misbehavin' runs through Monday, December 31, 2007. Ticket prices range from $40 to $55, and may be purchased by calling the Prince Music Theater box office at 215-569-9700, in person at 1412 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, or online at www.princemusictheater.org.