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Ain’t Misbehavin’ - The Fats Waller Musical Show, review by Bonny Gable

Contributed • Aug 27, 2018 at 9:14 AM

A luscious Art Deco backdrop graces an elevated bandstand. The dusky atmosphere is draped in opulent green, orange and purple light. A small bar and café table beckon. You’ve slipped into a forbidden speakeasy of a bygone era, anxious to drink gin from a teacup and kick up your heels to the decadent music of jazz.

This thrill awaits you at Barter Theatre’s production of Ain’t Misbehavin’. With music by Thomas “Fats” Waller and book by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz this show celebrates the fabulous tunes and rhythms that rocked the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Upon entering the theatre an infectious excitement pulses throughout the house like an electrical current gone wild. This joint is jumpin’ long before the show even begins, the sheer anticipation of the rollicking music to come a testament to the power of its legacy.

Paying tribute to this legacy are five tremendously talented triple-threat performers unabashedly committed to entertaining you. So fully enraptured are they with the pure joy of sharing this music that it’s hard to know who is having more fun – the audience or them! Director Joy R. Vandervort-Cobb has lead her troupe with a deft hand and a sharp eye and ear for the world of Waller’s magic.

Each one in turn will steal your heart. Vanessa A. Jones (Armelia) instantly charms with the show’s opener Ain’t Misbehavin’, then absolutely ravishes as her seductive, velvety voice casts you under her spell in Squeeze Me. Her versatility seems endless as she wows with comical and lyrical style as well. Jerrial Young (Ken) performs incredible vocal gymnastics in his gorgeous tenor, and promptly becomes everybody’s best friend with his gregarious personality and comic charm. He can even tell a girl Your Feet’s Too Big and get away with it!

Syreeta S. Banks (Nell) has a voice of stunning beauty and power, with a winning personality that totally captivates. To say that she channels Nell Carter - who won a Tony for her performance in the 1978 original - in no way diminishes Banks’s own fine talents, but is meant as a compliment to this performer of truly outstanding abilities.

Kara-Tameika Watkins (Charlaine) radiates vitality at every turn, setting the stage afire with her fabulous dance moves as she croons Waller’s tunes with her beautiful, soulful embellishments. Richard E. Waits (Andre) is mesmerizing whether executing brilliant dance moves with ease or inciting swoons with his marvelous voice. In The Viper’s Drag Waits sets fires of his own when he beguilingly smolders with the pure luxury of indulgence.

The songs are written in a demanding vocal style that often mimics that of instrumental jazz, but many are stylized ballads and love songs. Black and Blue is a hauntingly beautiful anthem to human struggle. Its complex harmonies treat us to a gorgeous blend of voices, evoking feelings from deep within all of our souls.

The show is jam-packed with comedy as well, with clever double entendres inserted at every opportunity. In Jitterbug Waltz the ladies’ voices effortlessly navigate complex melodic leaps while in their antics they take humorously risqué liberties with the lyrics. The fun of the entire show is enhanced by the special touches of Amanda Aldridge and Ashley Campos in the musical staging.

The show is also visually stunning. Set designer Hana Lee creates the exquisitely inviting world of the jive joint, complete with brickwork frames sporting faint silhouettes of dancers undulating to the beat of cool jazz. Add in Andrew Morehouse’s inventive use of patterned light and shifting colors and the sensation of club hopping is created throughout the show.

Viewing black and white films from that era we forget what a rainbow of color was actually employed. Costume designer Howard Tsvi Kaplan reminds us that frocks of the ‘20s were anything but drab. The ladies glide onstage in richly colored satin dresses with sparkling sequins and jewels. The men follow in lively hued suits complete with vests, derby hats, and two-toned shoes. All dazzle us with Harlem Renaissance elegance.

Music director John Bronston, consummate musician and incredible pianist, leads his amazing band of instrumentalists with panache. He shines in Handful of Keys, showing off the famous “stride” piano, a style perfected by Fats Waller and incorporated into his jazz compositions. The blockbuster Sprendin’ Rhythm Around treats us to a generous taste of the band’s talents as each member gets a chance to knock our socks off.

If you are in the market for a show that runs on high octane, this is the one. It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie, so I won’t. This show Can’t Give You Anything But Love.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ runs at Barter Theatre, Abingdon, VA through September 8. For tickets and information contact 276-628-3991 or www.bartertheatre.com

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