Regional Reviews: Boston
Featured as Fats, Calvin Braxton is a large man with a big, infectious smile and a voice like butter. He has the audience eating out of his hand from the moment he enters, engaging folks on all three sides of the thrust space with eye contact and finger pointing, and even getting them to sing along on a couple of songs. The rest of the company joins Braxton for the opening medley that includes the title song, providing an upbeat start to get the joint jumpin'.
It must have been a challenge for the creator and original director Richard Maltby, Jr. to choose from Waller's songbook of approximately 400 tunes, but the result is a revue consisting of thirty solid hits, many of which are familiar. "Honeysuckle Rose," "Your Feet's Too Big" and "Black and Blue" are just a few that stand out. Robin Long delivers a saucy "Squeeze Me," laying the foundation for her character, followed by Lovely Hoffman's heartfelt "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling." Davron S. Monroe is the guy playing the field ("How Ya Baby") and does some nifty swing steps with Lori Tishfield. Just before intermission, everyone gets into the act to bring down the house with a raucous "The Joint is Jumpin'" with Braxton's amazing Charleston as the highlight.
In a successful musical revue, the vocal talents of the cast ought to come first, and these five are topnotch. Each has a singular style in solo spots, and their group harmony is controlled and beautifully rendered, especially in "Black and Blue." Their acting of the songs and stage movements are organic, conveying an understanding of Waller's message and the era represented. Bray's choreography is geared to the varying abilities of the quintet, but the dancing blends artistically with the music and is executed well. Importantly, the ensemble has great chemistry, works together seamlessly, and appears to be really enjoying themselves.
With the exception of Braxton, the performers are making their debuts at Lyric Stage. Hoffman, a Boston College graduate, is a contemporary R&B soul artist. A recent transplant to Boston, Long shows her range in this role following her strong turn as lesbian lawyer Joanne in Rent, New Rep's season opener. Monroe has graced many local stages with orchestral and vocal organizations and I hope his lovely voice will be featured in more musical theatre in the area. Currently in her senior year at The Boston Conservatory, Tishfield is another shining example of the caliber of performers being turned out by that storied institution. She has good dance technique, charming comedic skills, and keeps pace with her professional colleagues.
David Towlun's striking design features an arc of piano keys framing the stage flanked by vertical trombone-like images. Franklin Meissner, Jr.'s lighting creates a multitude of moods and draws attention to several areas of the stage. The women's costumes by Mallory Frers feature a warm palette in the first act and greater elegance for act two. Braxton and Monroe wear crisp three-piece suits and stylish hats and shoes. All of the design elements combine to create a feeling of being in a jazz club in Harlem in the 1930s. Still, with all that this production has going for it, the number one reason to see Ain't Misbehavin' is the music of Fats Waller. Considered as culturally and historically important by the Library of Congress, as well as honored by the Grammy Awards, it is steeped in the character of the man and the era that produced it. Most important, it is damn good music and the show is two hours of toe-tapping fun.
Ain't Misbehavin', through December 17 at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-585-5678 or www.lyricstage.com. Conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horowitz, Created and Originally Directed by Richard Maltby, Jr., Original Choreography and Musical Staging by Arthur Faria, Music by Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller and Others, Lyrics by Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller and Others; Musical Adaptations, Orchestrations and Arrangements by Luther Henderson; Vocal and Musical Concepts by Jeffrey Gutcheon, Musical Arrangements by Jeffrey Gutcheon and William Elliot, Directed and Choreographed by Josie Bray; Music Director, Catherine Stornetta; Scenic Design, David Towlun; Costume Design, Mallory Frers; Lighting Design, Frank Meissner, Jr.; Production Stage Manager, Nerys Powell; Assistant Stage Manager, Cat Dunham Meilus
Cast: Calvin Braxton, Lovely Hoffman, Robin Long, Davron S. Monroe, Lori Tishfield
- Nancy Grossman