“Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” — so goes one of the songs in Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’. Signature Theatre’s production of this classic show goes even further: it not only spreads the rhythm on both sides of the bread, but also serves huge helpings of popular music, retro American culture, and even a few poignant history lessons.
In imitation of Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club, the stage (designed brilliantly by Paige Hathaway) evokes a 1930’s night club setting with floored spotlights around the edges of the stage and running up and down the border of the stage itself. A sense of gritty realism is also provided, with a recreation of a Harlem street setting on a platform above the stage. Props and costuming from the period are also used, including retro microphones, elegant feathered scarves, and dresses and suits bespeaking 1930’s elegance. Yet Ain’t Misbehavin’ (directed by Joe Calarco) does not hinge on nightclub atmosphere and 1930’s fashions. Nor does it depend heavily on the actors’ spoken words. Rather, the heart and soul of the production lies in the music of Thomas “Fats” Waller, the legendary jazz pianist, organist, composer, and flamboyant performer who was so much a part of the jazz scene of the 1930’s and early 1940’s.
The production begins fabulously as the show transitions from a V-Disc recording of Fats Waller’s actual voice and piano to Mark G. Meadows live on the piano, masterfully channeling the Fats Waller style as he plays, figuratively and literally, a “Handful of Keys.” Two of Waller’s most famous pieces, “Honeysuckle Rose” and — of course! — “Ain’t Misbheavin’,” are performed, and in Waller’s “rollicking rhythm” style, but not just as piano solos. In addition to Mr. Meadows’ standout piano work, he also serves as bandleader for the six-piece jazz band backing him.
Also present are three female and two male vocalists and dancers. These five performers often perform in small skit-based musical numbers, such as “The Ladies Who Sing with the Band,” a stand-out duet between Solomon Parker III and Kevin McAllister (the latter with a beautifully deep voice) as both perform this song energetically. The “ladies who sing with the band” in this production are Nova Y. Payton, Korinn Walfall, and Iyona Blake. Each of these performers is enormously talented, but the latter has a voice which is frankly operatic in range and voice control.
The audience is again driven into rhythm as Solomon Parker III performs “The Viper’s Drag,” the choreography (by Jared Grimes) coinciding well with the witty lyrics and the performer smoking. Another number which invigorates the audience with the spirit of the show is “Fat and Greasy,” as all in attendance are encouraged to sing along. An especially enjoyable component of the show, sadly less common on stages today than it once was, is the singers imitating different jazz instruments while scat singing at the end of the show.
The five vocalists are referred to on the program’s “Musical Numbers” page and in program captions simply as Solomon, Kevin, Iyona, Nova, and Korinn. Having the singers use their real names (and just their first names) is an unusual device and, as part of the show, builds a personal connection with the audience, perhaps making it more accessible for the audience and weaving the show into our own time period.
It must be pointed out that this production show does not wallow in nostalgia. It reminds us that the era which created this brilliant music was also filled with violence (gunshots resound in “The Joint Is Jumpin’”), drugs (“The Viper’s Drag”), and racism (“Black and Blue”). Yet there is also World War II-era patriotism in “Yacht Club Swing,” sung by Korinn in sailor suit, “When the Nylons Bloom Again,” with Iyona as chanteuse, and “Cash for Your Trash,” vocalized by Nova. Such patriotic numbers are all the more moving in their sincerity in view of the racial discrimination faced by Waller and other Harlem Renaissance artists during that time period. African-American performers of the pre-Civil Rights era only achieved occasional and nominal acceptance, as attested to in the number “Lounging at The Waldorf,” paradoxically yet fittingly one of the wittiest songs in the show.
This reviewer enthusiastically recommends Signature Theatre’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ for its fabulous virtuoso performances of Fats Waller’s infectious music and tributes to his effervescent personality, as well as the production’s stage recreation of a significant and creative era in American music. Before the show ends on March 10, come to the place where “The Joint is Jumpin’!”
Ain’t Misbehavin’ runs through March 10, 2019, at Signature Theatre, located at 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, Virginia 22206. Running time is 2 hours, with one 15 minute intermission. For more information, please visit https://www.sigtheatre.org/.