Had enough with exclusive summer parties on the East End? Well this month the Bay Street Theatre is throwing a party that everyone is invited to. “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which opened last Saturday, offers theatergoers a chance to step off Long Wharf and into a different time and place.
Harlem, an apartment on the corner of 134th Street and Lenox Avenue. The 1930s. Two ceiling fans make lazy patterns on the wood paneled floor and posters hang around the theater advertising, “Rent Party Tonight!” The lights dim to reveal a solitary radio, from which pipes the voice of Thomas “Fats” Waller, his mother’s 250-pound baby boy, the prolific jazz pianist and composer whose music is featured in the show.
The cast members begin to filter onto the stage, clucking and braying and exchanging various niceties. Pianist “Slim” (really William Foster McDaniel) sits down and begins hammering away at the ivories, opening with the titular song. McDaniel is the beating heart and soul of the musical, playing and conducting without any sheet music. With his back to the crowd, the “Y” of his suspenders in full view at center stage, like an affirmative answer to the question “Are you enjoying yourself?”
Although director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s concept of the show differs somewhat from the original 1978 Broadway version in that she tried to add more of a plotline, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is still in essence a musical revue. Running like a greatest hits album, where one song ends another begins, the applause barely dying down before McDaniel counts out the next tune with his feet.
The five main performers, two men and three women, carry on with each other as old friends might. Though fickle in their romantic endeavors, the men have a whole lot of love to give around. Sweets, the role based on Fats Waller played wonderfully by James Alexander, woos Queenie (Q. Smith) with a sumptuous rendition of “Honeysuckle Rose.”
King (Jim Weaver, also the associate director and choreographer) meanwhile pursues Cherry (Monica Patton) in “How Ya Baby,’ their legs swinging like metronomes in a sensual courtship dance. Weaver’s King is reminiscent of Cab Calloway, zoot suit and all, striding and swinging across the Bay Street stage.
The ensemble numbers are strong throughout the show. “Handful of Keys,” with its fun vocal arrangement and whimsical choreography is certainly an act one highlight. But for some reason, the first act lacked a certain spark. Although the performances were strong and the band was cooking, when the act closed with “The Joint is Jumpin’,” really it was anything but.
Dodge said she wanted her audiences to wish they could be invited to the party onstage. While that sentiment was present, watching the first act of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” very much felt like sitting in the corner of a party of strangers: not an awful time, but not the best either. The flaw could very well be in the structure of the musical, the lack of cohesion and plotline.
The second act felt like a different show. It began with a strong ensemble number, “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around,” when the five characters dispose of the policemen who had come to break up their party by showing them a good time.
Act two has powerful solo numbers as well in quick succession. King sings “The Viper’s Drag,” as he dances around the theater and interacts with the audience. Queenie belts out the ballad “Mean to Me,” and Sweets then breaks the mood with “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Queenie and Ruby (Aurelia Williams), bursting with attitude, sing the hilarious duet “Find Out What They Like.”
The show ends on a more serious note, the ensemble singing together the song “Black and Blue,” made famous by Louis Armstrong. After a night of dancing, flirting and general silliness, the lyrics addressing racism and bigotry are particularly poignant.
The cast, who for the whole production were very interactive, break apart in the last number. Connected only by five-part harmony, they look out to the audience in separate pools of light.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a fun escape, a veritable time machine of music and dance. It’s worth a trip to Bay Street, if for the second act alone. As Fats Waller said himself time and time again, “One never knows, do one?”