“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a toe-tapping, finger-snapping, bouncing-in-your-seat tribute to Thomas Wright Waller, aka “Fats Waller” and the black music makers of the Harlem Renaissance. Other than Waller who was notorious for “writing” any song that he heard and liked, the works of Fred E. Ahlert, Jimmy McHugh, Joe Young, Dorothy Fields and others are showcased in the evening. The evening features such standards as “What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue“, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love“, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter“, and some rarely heard gems.
First produced on Broadway in 1978, the show enjoys a famously strong first act of tunes and songs followed by a second act that seems to say, “‘Cuse me. Did you think we were serious before? Uh-uh, now we are serious. Best hold on t’your teeth.” The show is also regarded as a singer’s “songfest”. The original Broadway staging brought a Tony to Nell Carter (as well as the show itself), the Pointer Sisters and Michael-Leon Wooley starred in a 1995 national tour of the show, and the show’s 30th anniversary saw another national touring company which featured the considerable vocal talents of Ruben Studdard, Frenchie Davis and Trenyce Cobbins. (For the uninitiated, the winner of and two contestants from the second season of American Idol.)
This is one of those shows where the casting is “make or break” and in this instance the cast is definitely a “Make.” Notice with a capital “M”. The first act is pretty much the ensemble’s, but the second act is where the individual members get to strut their stuff.
The sinuous and stretched limbed Lacy Darryl Phillips has his time in the lime light with the “Refer Song” which he puffs right down to a roach of impressive meagerness. Jennifer Shelton sings of love’s sorrows with the soulful tune “Mean to Me” displaying a voice that is the equivalent of a pearl draped in silk. Phillip Brandon chortles the audience with the veiled sexuality of “Your Feet’s Too Big“. Amber Mercomes joins Shelton in the ribald “Find Out What They Like” and belts the burlesque ballad right outta the park with her Babe Ruth vocals. Niketa Calame rounds out the top-notch troupe, all of whom manage to make the most of each single magnificent note.
Director Saundra McClain guides the evening with a sure hand, dispensing elegance and electricity skillfully. She is well served by Rahn Coleman the musical director and Stephen Semien the choreographer. John Iacovelli, long time ICT scenic designer, supplies a set both intelligent and fetching.
It’s always advisable now for a reviewer to watch the audience watching the show as much as the show itself. This way he avoids being one of those brachyphallic momes (look ‘em up) who sits through a raucous comedy, where the audience is rolling outta its seats, then goes on to write a lambasting pan of it, declaring the evening managed to “deliver not one funny line”. The Irish have a saying, “Koeh ler tis ingler.” Loosely translated from the Gaelic, “Don’t give pens to swine”.
Watching the audience for “Ain’t Misbehavin’” would have told me all I needed to know.
It was a Sunday matinee which accounts for the Day-Trippers, elderly folks out for a day at the theatre, some obviously dozing, weary from the bus ride in. The transformation was immediate. First, bowed forms in the seat, boosted up a tad recognizing the music of their parents, probably hummed or whistled about the house when they were but children.
The first act grabbed them solidly with toes tapping and heads bobbing. The second act closed the deal. Now they were clapping along, a couple were pumping to “bring down the house”, and one red-capped granddame was bouncing with such gusto as to entice concerns for her well being from me. At the finale, as they broke into boisterous applause, I swear those Day-Trippers left the theatre 20 years younger.
How about that, the Fountain of Youth complete with tunes to hum.