BWW Review: Fats Waller and the Music of the Harlem Renaissance Rock in MSMT/Portland Stage's AIN'T MISBEHAVIN'
For the next month Portland Stage will be transformed into the Fats Waller Harlem Club where five performers and four musicians rock the stage each night recreating the sounds and sensations of the Harlem Renaissance era in music. The spectacular, soul-gripping show is AIN'T MISBEHAVIN', the musical dedicated to the work of the legendary Fats Waller, presented in a powerful co-production by Maine State Music Theatre and Portland Stage at the Portland venue. Directed by E. Faye Butler and choreographed by Kenny Ingram, this fourth collaboration between these two leading Maine theatres is an entertaining, moving, and enlightening theatrical experience.
The 1978 musical revue with thirty songs conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horowitz pays homage to the breadth of music Waller created in his brief life (1904-1943) and to his own extraordinary skills as a stride pianist, performer, and bandleader. The range of thematic material and styles is impressive, and the show delivers all the big Waller hits like the title song, "Honeysuckle Rose," "This Joint Is Jumpin'," "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," and the unforgettable "Black and Blue," at the same time that it introduces the audience to a great many other songs in Waller's "uptown" and "downtown" styles. Performed by a five-person ensemble, together with a four-person onstage band in Butler and Ingram's sultry, sassy musical staging, the show offers a journey in musical vignettes through the mesmerizing moods of the culturally rich Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.
Actress, singer, musical theatre legend E. Faye Butler and storied choreographer Kenny Ingram make their Portland Stage debuts with this production. For Butler, the show is one with which she has had a long and intimate connection, having played all three female roles on national and regional tour and in leading regional theatres across the country. Together, she and Ingram bring a vision that is authentic, infused with humor, bristling with energy, and haunting in emotion and subtext. Both Butler and Ingram know how to tell a story in song, and each number is staged to create a miniature narrative. The company numbers like " Spreadin' the Rhythm Around" or "The Jitterbug Waltz" "jump and jive," and there are some riveting solo or duo pieces like "The Viper's Drag" or "That Ain't Right." The pace is brisk; the moods fluid; the fabric seamless. They are aided by the extraordinary quartet of musicians, (Sean Potter, reeds; Jered Eagan, bass; Eric Yim, drums) led by pianist Roderick Demmings, Jr., who plays Waller's music with fleet-fingered eloquence.
The physical production boasts an attractive set by Anita Stewart that suggests the dark, smoky interior of the Cotton Club, with burgundy walls, the raised bandstand, a bar, tables and booths (with a few onstage audience seats). Gregg Carville's lighting adds an air of mystery with just a touch of glitz, while Travis Wright's sound design is nicely balanced for an appealing acoustic in this intimate house. Stage Manager Shane Van Vliet (Andrew Hesselbart, Assistant) keeps the action on track, while Kathleen P. Brown creates the very lovely period costumes with a first act set of casual outfits in sepias, yellows, terra cotta tones, followed by formal wear in the second act with musicians in tuxedos and cast in dazzling white outfits with flashy (faux) fur wraps.
The cast is comprised of five excellent vocalists, each of whom knows how to deliver a story in a song, and how to complete that narrative in movement and dance. Moreover, the voices have been chosen to complement each other in color and texture, so that the overall aural landscape is a rich feast for the ears. Quiana McNary uses her classical trained voice with its exceptional range in such expressive numbers as "Squeeze Me," "When the Nylons Bloom Again," and "Two Sleepy People." La'Nette Wallace brings a dark, velvety mezzo and a brassy belt to songs such as ""I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling," "Mean to Me," and in a beautifully blended duet with McNary, "Find Out What They Like." Renelle Nicole possesses a lovely lyric soprano and proves herself a lithe dancer in pieces like "Yacht Club Swing,""Keepin' Out of Mischief Now," and "I've Got My Fingers Crossed." Dwelvan David knows how to deliver a song with character and aplomb, delighting in "Honeysuckle Rose, the amusing "Your Feet's Too Big," and the memorable "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter." Jonathan Adriel lends a kinetic, compelling dance presence and a characterful song delivery to many moments, including "How Ya Baby," "That Ain't Right," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," and the masterful mini-drama "The Viper's Drag."
Together these five create so many single and ensemble moments of perfection, fluidly strung together, but perhaps the most poignant is the company rendition of "Black and Blue," the 1929 Waller hit popularized by Louis Armstrong, which takes searing, fearless aim at racism and at the accusations sometimes leveled at the composer about "shallow entertainment." Arranged here for the entire company, who trade harmonies and blend melodies with a depth of emotional beauty, it is the dramatic high point of the second act.
AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' pays tribute to the many struggles and triumphs of its composer, Fat Waller, just as it speaks to a vibrant African-American cultural legacy that has shaped American history and arts. It is an important and inspiring theatrical work that not only celebrates the Harlem Renaissance with its great musicians, performers, writers, artists, thinkers, but also offers inspiration and positive challenge to its contemporary audience. As E. Faye Butler so articulately put it in her impassioned curtain speech, the Harlem Renaissance was not confined to New York City, but rather was a flourishing of African- American arts and accomplishment in every corner of the nation, including Portland, where families such as that of Gerald E. Talbot, who were honored on opening night, had a hand in shaping legislation, social, and civic change.
This production of AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' revives the atmosphere of awe-inspiring, groundbreaking art that contributed so much to American thought and culture. Offering the audience a window into this fascinating, multi-textured world of the Harlem Renaissance, it deepens our sense of self and enriches our understanding of one another.
Photographs courtesy of MSMT & Portland Stage, Aaron Flacke, photographer
AIN'T MISBEHAVIN" is a co-prodcution of MSMT and Portland Stage, which runs from August 6- September 1, 2019, at Portland Stage, 25 Forest Ave., Portland, ME www.portlandstage.org207-774-0465