Ain't Misbehavin'

Also see Ann's review of Oliver!

Monica Patton and Jim Weaver;
Q. Smith and Aurelia Williams (background).

With a fully stocked inventory of songs by prolific and iconic American songwriter Fats Waller, Ain't Misbehavin' has enjoyed great success, from its Off-Broadway birth to a nearly four-year run on Broadway to countless regional productions. Traditionally staged in a presentational nightclub format, Waller's songs (and piano music with new lyrics) have been enjoyed for their heart, soul and comedy by thousands.

In a new staging for Pittsburgh Public Theatre by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, Ain't Misbehavin' is a "situation musical," and the five performers (plus band conductor/piano player William Foster McDaniel providing some supporting work) play a quintet of named characters, and they perform within the very loose premise of a swing-era rent party in Harlem. The two-and-a-half dozen songs are all over the place in attitude and personality; the burden of making them illuminate the individuality of five characters in a single situation takes away a lot of the fun of the show. As a revue, it's a celebration of Waller's vibrant music. As a more structured piece, the staging distracts from the music and doesn't add anything to the richness of the evening.

The cast of five singers give dedicated and joyful performances. Everett Bradley as Sweets is especially enjoyable; the outsized personality he evokes here is delightful. He sings with a rich, full voice ("Honeysuckle Rose," "Your Feet's Too Big") and creates the most fleshed-out character in the show. Jim Weaver as King is light on his feet and uses his tall, slim body to good effect in the "The Viper's Drag." The women don't have the opportunity to create very distinct characters, but they sing and move well. Monica L. Patton, playing Cherry, is a lithe and athletic dancer. Her song with King (and company), "How Ya Baby," is terrific to watch and hear, and she really shines on "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now." Ruby (Aurelia Williams) and Queenie (Q. Smith) are full-bodied and strong women. Williams and Smith provide a fervent and bawdy rendition of "Find Out What They Like" and make spirited contributions to many songs.

There are two thrilling highlights of the evening: the jazzy and sassy orchestra's entr'acte performance, which shows that Waller's music is sometimes better enjoyed in full instrumental form, rather than with added lyrics. Chuck Austin on trumpet and flugel horn, Greg Humphries on drums, Carl Jackson on trombone, Ken Power on sax and clarinet, Paul Thompson on acoustic bass (the preceding all local musicians) and the phenomenal William Foster McDaniel on piano add tremendous musical support throughout the evening, but their sparkling solo work at the beginning of the second act makes you want more of the same. The other highlight is the company's presentation of the poignant and evocative "Black and Blue" (music by Waller and Harry Brooks, lyrics by Andy Razaf vocal arrangement by William Elliott). Originally written for a gangster's all-black show, which played for an all-white audience, the blues ballad about mixed race relationships is stunningly performed.

James Noone decorates the O'Reilly Theatre with period and theme appropriate set dressing and artwork. Costumes by Emilio Sosa are attractive though not always flattering. Dodge provides a lively pacing, allowing the company to cover a lot of ground in two hours.

Ain't Misbehavin' continues through February 20 at the Pittsburgh Public Theater through December 5. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit or the box office at 621 Penn Avenue.

Photo: Ric Evans

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-- Ann Miner