By David Greenham
This sizzling production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ is one of those one-of-a kind of experiences that we all long for in the theater.
Ain’t Misbehavin’- The Fats Waller Musical. Conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz. Musical adaptations, orchestrations & arrangements by Luther Henderson. Directed and choreographed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent. David Freeman Coleman and Dan Rodriguez, co-music directors. Ilyse Robbins, co-choreographer. Produced by The Nora@Central Square Theater, The Front Porch Arts Collective, and Greater Boston Stage Company at the Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, through May 29. At the Greater Boston Stage Company, 395 Main Street, Stoneham, June 9 through 26.
It was bound to happen sooner or later. The dark and dismal two-year bout of Covid caused cancellations, delays, and more than its fair share of heartbreak and loss, but at some point there had to come the glimmer of a bright sun. For me, it happened on Monday night at Central Square Theater.
The Nora, The Front Porch Collective, and Greater Boston Stage Company joined forces and turned a 40-year-old musical revue into an elixir of hope, possibilities, and pure joy. A new revival of Ain’t Misbehavin’ came barreling on stage and though audience members were masked there was no disguising the nonstop smiles on their faces.
Director and choreographer Maurice Emmanuel Parent has done right by Fats Waller in this celebration of his infectious song and dance. The performers have been extremely well directed and they are musically balanced with a gratifying ear for nuance. Panist/conductor Dan Rodriguez and the band never overpowers the vocalists. In the capable hands of scenic designer Jon Savage and lighting designer Jeff Adelberg, the flexible Central Square Theater space has been imaginatively skewed, transformed into an intimate nightclub, complete with cocktail table seating, a proscenium with a velvety red drape, and brilliant backdrop panels inspired by jazz-age modernist artist Archibald Motley. Chandeliers adorned with rich red shades as well as table lamps transport the audience to an irresistible fantasy — whatever troubles going on outside don’t matter any longer.
The evening kicks off brilliantly. Rodriguez saddles up to the piano, and the band — Sahil Warsi on bass, Yoron Israel on drums, Greg Hopkins on trumpet, George Jones on trombone, and Todd Brunel on reeds — take over from a recording of Fats himself playing the title song. After that, there was no looking back.
When performers Lovely Hoffman, Christina Jones, Sheree Marcelle, Jackson Jirard, and Anthony Pires, Jr. arrive – looking fine in Elisabetta Polito’s sparkly costumes – they collectively electrify the crowd. The famous opening trio of songs – “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Lookin’ Good but Feelin’ Bad,” and” T’Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do” set the surefire tone for a delightful two hour show that zips by with ease.
Yes, some will suspect that the accolades this production garners will sound like over-the-top praise. But the fact is that this production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ is one of those one-of-a kind of experiences that we all long for in the theater. It’s when the tech, the direction, the cast and artistic staff mesh and then soar.
It is not only the high-octane numbers that are exhilarating. Yes, the crazy-good group numbers eagerly draw on Waller’s energy and then whip the audience into a bit of a frenzy – like “Handful of Keys.” “How Ya Baby,” and “This Joint is Jumpin’”. But director Parent and his collaborators also cast spells when putting across songs that make it feel as if there is all the time in the world.
Sheree Marcelle’s sultry and seductive “Squeeze Me” shows Waller’s agile skill at building a song. Lovely Hoffman’s straightforward and heart-breaking “Mean To Me” edges into the darker side of relationships. And newcomer Christina Jones practically stopped the show with her playful and smartly detailed “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” Anthony Pires, Jr.’s charm consistently matches his rich and pitch-perfect baritone throughout the evening. But it’s the triple threat of Jackson Jirard who brings the house down with a wonderfully conceived and performed performance of “The Viper’s Drag.” They really ought to just stop the show and have Jirard do a reprise — it is that spectacular.
There are issues here. The structure of the show poses challenges. Two thirds of the first act zip along with head-of-steam confidence, but the rest of the proceedings become more than a bit choppy. The “bandstand” section is designed to cover the war years. The male vocalists provide a fun opening number before turning the stage over to the women for some silly songs. In other productions I’ve seen, including the original staging on Broadway, this section has inevitably come off as disconnected from the zest that came before. In this revival, it works. Marcelle, Hoffman, and Jones sell their goofy songs well. The highlight for me: when the trio sings the absurd “When the Nylons Bloom Again.” Marcelle and Hoffman start up a snarky rivalry, while Jones hilariously teeters on the edge of insanity.
And the songs in the second half of the show, after the intermission, feel cobbled together. The selection thins out once the Waller-composed tunes have been run through and the performers plow through several well known tunes that Waller covered. But again, the stellar ensemble floats through the songs with enthusiasm. Late in the second act, the alarming and heartbreaking “Black and Blue” is a treat, beautifully sung and balanced. The performers sit on stools across the apron of the stage and just flat out sing.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ breaks some rules. The music features songs either written or recorded by Waller, but the show was conceived and developed by a couple of middle-aged white guys. The original production took Broadway by storm 44 years ago next week. It snagged a pile of Tony and Drama Desk awards and made Nell Carter a star. But it also reflects the sexist attitudes that were accepted decades ago. Some scripts and show music from that era (and before) are difficult to produce today without the companies providing some context. But this production makes its playfully enlightened attitudes clear: the artistic team and performers relish the songs and never take themselves too seriously.
Happily, Front Porch co-Artistic Director Dawn M. Simmons told the opening night crowd that there is already a plan to remount the production this summer. But why wait, when the joint is jumpin’ like this?
David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.