BWW Review: With AIN'T MISBEHAVIN', Portland Center Stage is Really Jumpin'!
If Fats Waller were alive today, I imagine he would love to hop up on stage, take control of the piano, and join the cast of AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' for the night. Portland Center Stage's production of this musical, conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr., and Murray Horowitz based on the music of Fats Waller, is a high-energy crowd-pleaser. In addition to the fantastic music, this show has great direction by PCS's artistic director Chris Coleman, an awesome rotating set by scenic designer Tony Cisek, and an all-around stellar cast.
AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' is a series of vignettes about African-American life in 1920s and 1930s Harlem. It consists of 31 songs, mostly by jazz pianist Fats Waller, an incredibly prolific songwriter and recording artist. Waller copyrighted more than 400 songs in his 39-year lifetime, and Coleman's director's notes tell us that he recorded more than 100 songs in 1938 alone. The musical takes us on a journey from living rooms to jazz halls, to seedy alleyways, to the kitchen of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. There is no narrative per se (and almost no dialogue), but it definitely tells a story -- of a time and a place and a culture that was simultaneously experiencing an artistic explosion (the Harlem Renaissance) and the effects of racial inequality.
To tell this rich story, Portland Center Stage has assembled a knockout cast. With Maltby's permission, Coleman added cast members, which now total 11. Portland Center Stage regulars will recognize some of them, like David Jennings, who was an excellent Jimmy Early in last year's DREAMGIRLS. As this show is pretty much the definition of an ensemble piece, it seems a little unfair to single out any one performer, but I did have a favorite in Mia Michelle McClain, whose voice and comedic talents dazzled me all night. The cast is supported by an incredible five-piece band, my only complaint about which is that they didn't come out and take a bow at the end.
And the set -- a rotating multi-level marvel! It's almost like another character, dancing along with the rest of the ensemble. Love it.
Obviously, I recommend AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' very highly. It runs through November 29, and you can buy tickets at www.pcs.org.
Photo credit: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.