The Washington Savoyards wrap up their season this month with a snazzy, kinetic, hot and hilarious must-see revival of Murray Horwitz’ and Richard Maltby Jr.’s 1978 hit Broadway revue, Ain’t Misbehavin’. It’s a toe-tapping song and dance tribute to the late, great Fats Waller. With its simple yet elegant nightclub set and a cast of phenomenally skillful singer-hoofers, this latest Savoyards offering is just the right antidote to dispel the early dog-days of this already steamy month of June.
Pianist, organist, singer, composer, and all-around entertainer—Fats Waller did it all. One of the most popular musical figures of the Golden Age of jazz, he was perhaps most highly regarded as a stride pianist without equal, one who was so good that Gershwin pal and fellow pianist Oscar Levant once dubbed him “the black Horowitz.”
But in his tragically short career—he died of complications from pneumonia in 1943 at 39—Waller also composed, collaborated on, or popularized dozens of hit tunes as well, many of which, like the show’s title song, have never really left the repertoire since they first hit the swing music scene. And it’s these hit songs, combined with the players’ brilliant re-creation of the Harlem Renaissance jazz cabaret and nightclub scene, that really makes this show snap, crackle, and pop.
Ain’t Misbehavin’s two acts offer up just the right combination of ballads, jazz riffs, and raunchy novelty songs to help conjure up the liveliness of this upper Manhattan club life. Entertainment like this, offered by Waller, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and an entire pantheon of jazz and swing immortals, was a welcome distraction from the grinding poverty and the endless gloom of the Great Depression.
Led flawlessly by the show’s music director and pianist Darius Smith and his trio of jazz musicians, and crisply directed by director/choreographer Michael J. Bobbitt with the assistance of Nikolas Vaughan, the Savoyard’s multitalented, first-class cast kept this show hopping from start to finish.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ has no discernable plot. But it has many moods from light to dark, all of them springing from the show’s five quirky and all-too-human characters. The women include tough-as-nails Armelia (Iyona Blake), sassy Nell (Nova Y. Payton), hyperactive party-girl Charlaine (Lauren Du Pree), dapper André (Daryl A. Spiers), and ladies’ man Ken (Clif Walker).
In singles, pairs, and ensembles, this smoothly professional cast sings, dances, mugs, and vamps its way through a rollicking cavalcade of vaudeville routines and hit tunes ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Better known numbers include the show’s title song, of course, along with “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” “Loungin’ at the Waldorf,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.”
Comic and novelty songs include the ladies’ take on “When the Nylons Bloom Again”—a WWII lament over the scarcity of nylon stockings; the over-the-top hilarious “Your Feet’s Too Big,” a slapstick one-man vaudeville show sung by Clif Walker; and “Fat and Greasy,” a bawdy comic number that reaches its outrageous climax when Walker and Spears manage to get their loosened-up audience in on the act.
On the more somber side, musical highlights also include the moving, partially à cappella racial lament, “Black and Blue,” and the ensemble number “Lookin’ Good But Feelin’ Bad.”
Led by Darius Smith, a mean stride pianist in his own right, the jazz quartet provided the perfect backdrop for the vocals. Denise Rose blessedly shaped the evening’s sound system so the audience could catch about 85% of the lyrics without strain and without the ear-splitting reverb that seems so obnoxiously in fashion these days in far too many musicals.
Andrew F. Griffin’s lighting design was smooth, evocative, and elegant. Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden’s tastefully minimalist nightclub set sparkled right down to its modernist pair of backless, floating liquor cabinets. And Eleanor Dicks’ costuming was cheeky yet evocative of the period.
We detected only a single, glaring fault in Saturday evening’s otherwise wonderful show: The Atlas Center’s beautiful Lang Theatre was only half full. Happily, the small audience mostly made up for the empty space with its genuine, noisy enthusiasm for the show. But hopefully, word of mouth will fill a lot more seats for the remainder of this marvelous production’s run, which closes on June 19.
If you’re a fan of Fats Waller and the music of the Harlem Renaissance, you won’t want to miss it.
by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr. with music by Fats Waller
Directed and choreographed by Michael J. Bobbitt
Musical direction by Darius Smith
Produced by Washington Savoyards
Reviewed byTerry Ponick
Running time: Two hours including one 15 minute intermission.
- Celia Wren . Washington Post
- Bob Anthony . AllArtsReview4You
- Jack L. B. Gohn . BroadwayWorld
- Erica Laxson . MDTheatreGuide