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BWW Reviews: AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' at Clarksville's Roxy Regional Theatre

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Where you could possibly find five more charming and engaging performers than the cast assembled by director/choreographer Ryan Bowie for his winning revival of Ain't Misbehavin' - now onstage through March 5 at Clarksville's Roxy Regional Theatre - is beyond me! These five dazzling entertainers deliver a musical jolt of electricity that completely enlivens the dark, frigid days of winter, taking audiences on a musical and historical journey through the Harlem Renaissance via the life and career of Mrs. Waller's bouncing 250-pound baby boy, Thomas - better known as "Fats."

Stylishly mounted and superbly performed, Ain't Misbehavin' - which opened on Broadway in 1978 - transforms the intimate confines of the Roxy into a nightclub (and its backstage environs) not unlike the Cotton Club or the Savoy Ballroom, where we see five hard-working performers come and go from their jobs and real lives, taking us along for a colorful adventure that is at once exhilarating and heart-renching. While the atmosphere inside the club is exciting and creative, director Bowie very intelligently underscores that brash interior with the hard, cold realities of what pre-World War II life outside the theater was like for African-Americans, whether they were artists or laborers.

That paradox is most acutely represented in the cast's heartfelt, emotional and altogether glorious rendition of "Black and Blue," which so evocatively captures the tenor of those times. As the song begins, we see the five actors in their dressing rooms, then as they move out of the nightclub - filling the theater with Waller's beautiful anthem (with lyrics by Waller, Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf). It's a stunning moment in a show that is mostly upbeat and joyous, and that makes the song's impact all the more compelling. If you weren't already captivated by the performances of Keith Patrick McCoy, Rendell DeBose, Faith Boles, Roslyn Seale and Brittney Mack, their interpretation of "Black and Blue" will certainly make you an instant fan of each actor.

Throughout the two-act musical revue, each of the actors is given the opportunity to shine and each member of the cast makes the most of his or her time in the spotlight to grab the audience's rapt attention and to hold onto it throughout the show. McCoy plays the charming ne'er-do-well who questions his actions in completely believable fashion, while DeBose is the spirited funnyman who can defuse any dicey moment with a raised eyebrow or surefooted movement. Boles has the gorgeous, soulful voice of a gifted torch singer (her performance of "Mean to Me" is my favorite number of the evening), replete with a seasoned actress' confidence. While Seale is tall and lithesome, with a lilting soprano and capable stage presence, the short and sassy Mack very nearly steals the show with her broadly comic delivery and absolute command of the stage.

Together, this talented ensemble - accompanied by the exceptional musical talents of music director Tom Thayer, who plays all those wonderful Waller tunes - delivers the goods on all fronts, thanks to Bowie's skilled direction and his imaginative vision. The play's action moves at a sprightly pace, the entire piece coming in at just under two hours.

Featuring a cavalcade of Waller's best-known compositions (like "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter," "Honeysuckle Rose," "The Joint is Jumpin'" and the title tune), as well as some of his lesser-known, more esoteric titles ("Fat and Greasy," "Lookin' Good But Feelin' Bad" and "Off-Time"), Ain't Misbehavin' is a feast for music lovers. Waller's catalogue of music contains some of the most easily recognizable tunes in the American songbook - and the staggering list of his collaborations with the leading lights of pop music reads like a who's who of American lyricists.

Bowie's vision for the musical allows the audience to see the cast members backstage in their dressing rooms, giving us a glimpse of their personal interactions, then we watch them transform into their onstage personas, presenting a top-flight nightclub revue. It's a clever way to involve the audience more actively in what's going on onstage and around them - particularly as Bowie moves his actors throughout the theater, making use of every nook and cranny the Roxy has to offer. John McDonald's well-conceived set design is both clever and colorful, looking for all the world as if it's been lifted from some nostalgic photographic album that dates the from the period of the Harlem Renaissance.

- Ain't Misbehavin', The Fats Waller Musical Show. Conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz. Musical adaptations, orchestrations and arrangements by Luther Henderson. Vocal and musical concepts by Jeffrey Gutcheon. Musical arrangements by Jeffrey Gutcheon and William Elliott. Directed and choreographed by Ryan Bowie. Music direction by Tom Thayer. Presented by the Roxy Regional Theatre, Clarksville, through March 5. For details, visit the company website at www.roxyregionaltheatre.org or call (931) 645-7699.


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