Waller rose to prominence in the 1920s, touring the country, performing at Carnegie Hall, and even starring in a few films, including Stormy Weather, before his untimely death at the age of 39 in 1943. Waller was a singer, songwriter and all-around performer, and it's fortunate that Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz came up with the idea to create an evening of music associated with Waller, as through this show, his music has continued to reach an entirely new audience. Ain't Misbehavin' features over 25 songs, including jazz, swing and rhythm & blues numbers and, while the show may lack a major storyline or plot, it is a highly infectious celebration of the Black Renaissance period of the 1920s and '30s. Ranging from smooth and seductive to somewhat naughty, all of the songs in this revue, sung by a group of three women and two men, celebrate the passion of life.
The original production featured Nell Carter, who won a Tony Award for her performance, and this cast, with just a few vocal shortcomings, is quite good. Fredena J. Williams, in the role that made Carter a star, is the best of the quintet. Her vocal abilities never fail and she is able to create very effectively the various characters who sing each song, something not that easy to do when there is no plot and only a few lines of dialogue between some of the songs. From a steamy "Honeysuckle Rose" sung with Walter Belcher to a roaring "Cash For Your Trash" to the sentimental "Mean to Me" and the slightly risqué duet of "Find out What they Like" with Katherine Todd, Williams is nothing short of great. But, while she always manages to draw your attention when she in on the stage, she also knows not to completely steal the spotlight in the ensemble numbers when she isn't the one singing at that moment.
As far as the rest of the cast, they are all quite effective. While there isn't a single bad song or moment in the show, highlights include Belcher wringing all of the humor out of "Your Feet's Too Big"; Andre Jordan as the stoned-out young man finding plenty of comedy and moving elegantly, with Fosse like moves, during "The Viper's Drag"; and the humorous USO sequence that features Williams, Todd and Brittney Mack. Belcher, Jordan, Todd and Williams' voices also blend beautifully during the sultry and romantic "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling." And, while there are plenty of solos, duets and trios, the many times when all five members of the cast are on stage are just as effective, from the rousing opening performance of the title song to the fun choreography during "Handful of Keys," the smooth Waldorf sequence in the second act and the high energy of "The Joint is Jumpin'." But with all of the comical and energetic songs in the show, it is the very serious "Black and Blue," with simple lyrics telling of the experience of being black in the 1920s with lyrics like "My only sin, is in my skin" delivered in a chilling fashion with each of the performers seated on the stage, that has the most emotional impact.
Director/choreographer Robert Kolby Harper has done an excellent job in guiding the cast to instill each song with depth and with a clear appreciation of the lyrics and the music. He also effectively creates the ambiance of an art deco Harlem nightclub with an intimate feeling. With several audience members seated at tables on the sides of the stage and the band situated in the center, it's as if we've taken a trip back to a speakeasy or supper club in Harlem, with the majority of the numbers choreographed as performance pieces around the on-stage audience. Harper's high flying choreography works seamlessly with the songs, never overpowering the lyrics and always used to complement, not detract from the music. He also knows exactly when not to use choreography, which is the true sign of a good director/choreographer. Alan Ruch's musical direction of the on-stage band is quite effective, at times energetic, jazzy, romantic or dramatic to match the tone of each song.
Yoon Bae's set design is superb. With a series of large piano keys floating in space over the set and a gorgeous art deco bar that surrounds the band, including beautifully lit shelves with rows of liquor bottles, it sets the scene for a musical evening in a high-end salon of the roaring '20s. The costumes by CeCe Sickler match the excellent quality of Bae's scenic design, with period perfect dresses for the ladies, some of which include color coordinated shoes, and sleek suits for the men. Mike Eddy's lighting design is equally impressive, painting the stage with every color imaginable, as well as providing a film noir-ish effect for the "Viper's Drag" number that also includes some nice smoke projections on the large drum-shaped screen hanging over the band.
Essentially a celebration of the music of the period and a touching tribute to Fats Waller and the Black singers and musicians of 1930s Harlem, Ain't Misbehavin' is a smooth, sweet and sassy affair that also touches upon some very serious moments, including that excellent version of "Black and Blue." The Phoenix Theatre production is exceptionally well directed, with a very good cast and superb creative designs, and led by a smoking band that all culminate in a show that sizzles.
Ain't Misbehavin' runs through February 16th at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com/ or by calling (602) 254-2151
Director/Choreographer: Robert Kolby Harper