If you ask me…
Westport County Playhouse
By Tom Holehan
Connecticut Critics Circle
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” Opens New Playhouse Season
A sure sign of summer being just around the corner is the opening of the Westport Country Playhouse. The venerable showplace is currently celebrating its 90th anniversary with a spirited revival of “Ain’t Misbehavin’”. One of the first in what has become an army of “juke box musicals” on Broadway. This Tony Award winning revue features a parade of classic Fats Waller songs that will never go out of style.
Originally conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz and now directed and choreographed in a reimagined staging by Jeffrey L. Page, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a co-production with the Barrington Stage and Geva Theatre Center. To be honest, not all the voices at the Playhouse will make you forget the sterling original Broadway company that made Nell Carter a star. Still, there’s enough to recommend in Westport and that includes company members Miya Bass, Paris Bennett, Jay Copeland, Judith Franklin and Will Stone.
This new production has a surprisingly slow, moody start until the unbridled cast of singer/dancers are allowed to let loose under Page’s snappy and breathless choreography. They give their all to a rousing medley of Fats Waller classics including “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do”, “Honeysuckle Rose”, “Lookin’ Good But Feelin’ Bad” and the raucous title tune.
Structurally, however, the revue seems stronger in its second act. There’s a definite lull in the action with “The Ladies Who Sing with the Band” sequence in Act One and the energy seems to drift. But things pick up considerably just in time with the rousing first act finale, “The Joint is Jumpin’”.
In program notes director Jeffery L. Page states that he is “interested in the celebration of Blackness as well as examining the hard truth: the fetishization of Blackness.” This is clear in some awkward staging when the very funny “Fat and Greasy” transitions to the somber and moving “Black and Blue”. Page has his two men frozen for what seems an eternity before they join the women for the song. It is far too long a pause though, confusing the audience and should be seriously rethought. Once “Black and Blue” starts, however, it becomes an anthem of enormous power about African-American identity, sung to the zenith in perfect five-point harmony by the cast. Stunning.
There are also some key solo moments especially by Bennett who is terrific singing “Mean to Me” and “Cash for Your Trash”. Stone exudes effortless comic brio with the novelty number, “Your Feet’s Too Big” while Copeland is all slinky velvet performing an outstanding rendition of “The Viper’s Drag/The Reefer Song”, though Page’s decision to have the remaining cast members intrude sounds a wrong note. And could someone explain the erratic use of the dry ice machine which produces smoke that comes and goes and then disappears completely when it’s needed most for “The Viper’s Drag/The Reefer Song”?
Oana Botez’s excellent costuming is the epitome of Harlem chic especially for the women but I’m still trying to figure out those harem pants for the men. Philip Rosenberg’s lighting shimmers like highly polished piano keys and, best of all, is Raul Abrego’s gorgeous art deco piano bar setting which eventually reveals a pistol-hot pit band under the able direction of Terry Bogart. While uneven in spots, there’s still enough sass and fire in this “Ain’t Misbehavin’” to more than satisfy. And, needless to say, the music remains timeless.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” continues at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court in Westport through Saturday, April 29th. For further information and ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.
Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.