Keeping the Harlem Renaissance alive
by Sally Mitani
Ain't Misbehavin' is a sizzling, lively tribute to Fats Waller and Harlem between the world wars, where music, dance, art, and literature bloomed in a brief and beautiful kind of Camelot. A lot of the luminaries who passed through that neighborhood, like Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson, left serious, game-changing artistry in their wake. Fats Waller might not be quite in their arena, but he contributed a lot of style and flair. In Harlem, they particularly loved the piano, and Waller was one of the early adopters of a certain springy left-hand rhythm called "stride." He was also a composer, spinning off hit songs effortlessly.
This is a revue, a cousin to the musical. If musical comedy is theater that sprouted songs, a revue is a music program that sprouted acting. This one, created in 1978 by Richard Maltby and Murray Horowitz, ran for over a decade on Broadway and is probably the reason why most people can stumble through a few lines from Waller's most famous songs, "Honeysuckle Rose" and the title song "Ain't Misbehavin'."
Set in a 1940s after-hours speakeasy in Harlem, the revue, which runs through January 1 at Performance Network, features three women (Kron Moore, K Edmonds, and Jennifer Cole) and two men (Darrian Ford and James Bowen) who sing and act out Waller's greatest hits, throwing in a little dance and between-song banter. The four-person band, composed of piano, sax, bass, and drums, is all white. Coincidence? It's more likely a sly role reversal. Jazz and blues artists like Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Ethel Waters put places like the Cotton Club on the map, but they played to largely white audiences, and the management never let them forget they were the hired help.
The first act glides by quickly, mixing Waller's great old chestnuts with weaker, less memorable material. The real showstoppers come in a cluster in the second half of the show. The close juxtaposition of Ford's beautifully grotesque "Viper's Drag," followed
by Bowen's loose and jokey "Your Feet's Too Big," then the blistering anthem "(What Did I Do to Be) So Black and Blue" sung in five-part harmony, suggest that Waller had considerably more wingspan as a composer than he's often given credit for.
Moore, Cole, and Edmonds wear form-fitting, glossy satin outfits with rhinestones and sassy T-straps. Ford and Bowen are kitted out in those gloriously elegant forties suits that seem to be designed with dancing in mind, supplemented by fedoras, vests, and two-toned brogues. What's not to like?
Oh, the audience. We were horrible! If you have cabaret seating be forewarned you'll be sitting at a small table on the stage, with these fearsomely stylish actors occasionally playing off you. I of the puffy coat and sensible shoes want to apologize to the cast and my fellow extras for said apparel, but in my defense I wasn't aware there was any such thing as cabaret seating, let alone that I had it. Further buzzkill: house manager opens the theatre by intoning into the lobby: "Ladies and gentlemen, if you have cabaret seating, you may take your nonalcoholic drinks into the theater ..." Ain't much of a chance for misbehavin'.
[Originally published in December, 2011.]