Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Thomas "Fats" Wallerstride pianist, songwriter, singer, leader of an instrumental ensemble, and all-around entertainerwas not familiar to many people by 1978, when creators Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz conceived a revue of his songs (most of which he wrote, some he performed) for Broadway. While the program notes suggest that Ain't Misbehavin' could be considered the first jukebox musical, it isn't a book show; one could see it as an early Broadway iteration of a form already familiar Off-Broadway (for example, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris).
Signature has reconfigured the MAX Theatre into the semblance of a nightclub, with audience members seated at tables in front of the performance area and actors entering and exiting through the theater aisles. (The rest of the seats are in the standard auditorium configuration.) Paige Hathaway's atmospheric scenic design places the swinging seven-piece orchestra, led from the piano by the notable Mark G. Meadows (familiar to Signature audiences as the lead in Jelly's Last Jam), in the center of an old-fashioned proscenium with chaser lights. The singers perform in front of the musicians; small, dusty-looking dressing-room areas stand in the "wings," with an alley-like walkway above and a spiral staircase leading to the "stage door."
First things first: McAllister and Payton make "Honeysuckle Rose" as juicy a duet as ever, Blake has a way with a powerful high note, Walfall delivers "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" with a winking charm, Payton is equally effective with sass ("Cash for Your Trash") and pathos ("Mean to Me"), and McAllister finds all the humor, both verbal and physical, in "Your Feet's Too Big." Jared Grimes' choreography makes sure that, as the song says, the joint is jumpin'.
The big surprise in this company is Parker, an amazingly limber dancer who can do a knockabout number on the spiral stairs, then follow it up with his slithering, insinuating interpretation of "The Viper's Drag." He can do comedy too, such as his goofy duet with Walfall on "How Ya Baby" and with McAllister on "Fat and Greasy."
While most of the show is pure fun, the creators deliberately placed a serious song, "Black and Blue," as an anchor just before the finale. The five performers simply stand in front of the piano and give the number the gravitas it deserves.