One of the first shows I remember reviewing when I became a theatre critic was Ain't Misbehavin', and it's become a favorite of mine ever since. Although, I've had to wait quite a few years for a group to do a revival of this fascinating revue based on the songs and recordings of the fabulous Fats Waller. To kick off their season, Stages St. Louis is presenting a very fine production of this show, and it features, not only five terrifically talented singers, but also a live band to accompany them. This is the first time I've seen Stages actually utilize a live band, and I must say it works out wonderfully well. There's a palpable intensity in the performers as they feed off the positive energy of these exceptional musicians that makes this a must-see event.
Ain't Misbehavin' is a revue, but it also lets the performers take on specific personalities. So, it's not just a group of singers paying tribute to the late great Fats, there's also an abundant amount of humor that comes through as well. Part of this humor can be traced to the songs themselves, which are racy and fun, without ever being lewd or distasteful. The wealth of material found here is mined wisely for comic gold, and that extends to the pieces Fats didn't write as well. It's not all lighthearted, and in in fact, the song “Black and Blue”, one of the show's highlights, is one of many laments that are covered. All in all, it's an evening well spent taking a trip through the enormous catalog of tunes that Fats accrued over his lifetime.
Each of the cast members excels, with Raena White (Armelia), Willena Vaughn (Nell), Eric Lajuan Summers (Andre), Wendy Lynette Fox (Charlaine), and Dwelvan David (Ken) singing and dancing up a storm. In fact, there are several times when “The Joint is Jumpin'”, and there are several instances in the show where each individual is given a chance to shine. White croons “Squeeze Me”, while Matthew McCarthy's playfully smart lighting design has the spotlight “squeeze” in tightly around her. It's a nice moment, and so is the green tinted number, “The Viper's Drag, which allows Summers the chance to work directly to the audience while puffing on a faux marijuana joint. David is at his funniest during “Your Feet's Too Big”, as his character frets over his girlfriend's huge pedal extremities. Fox makes the most of “Keepin' Out of Mischief Now”, while Vaughn brings down the house early in the second act with “Mean to Me”. All together, or in pairs, this ensemble employs a sweet sound that's like bluesy sunshine to your ears.
The band really drives this show, and it begins with pianist Adaron “Pops” Jackson's work as Luther. He's the only member that interacts directly with the other cast members, and though we rarely see anything more than the back of his neck, Jackson absolutely makes this play run with his deft handling of Waller's stride piano works. The rest of the group is seen in a brilliant “reveal” that jump starts the action, and includes: Jason Swagler (alto clarinet), Kendrick Smith (tenor clarinet), Cody Henry (trombone), Matt Bittles (trumpet), Jahmal Nichols (bass), and Bernard Long, Jr. (drums). Overall they displayed a very polished sound, and I can't remember there being any problems at all hearing the vocalists above their playing. So, someone did a great job on the soundboard, making sure each number was mixed properly.
Michael Hamilton's direction is nicely realized and executed, and it works in tandem with Peggy Taphorn's choreography, and Lisa Campbell Albert's brilliant musical direction. The stage itself was colorfully adorned with oversized 78's (ask your parents what those were, if you're not sure), and a lighted ring of piano keys that changed color to fit the mood of the song. Lou Bird's costuming is also top notch, and every performer looks sharp, including the band.
Go see Ain't Misbehavin', which is playing through July 1, 2012, or you'll be sorry you missed out on this swingin' show.