Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 24,

2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: Ain’t Misbehavin’

Either by association or direct composition, the

legendary

composer, pianist, and entertainer Fats Waller (1904-1943) was famed

for "Spreadin’ Rhythm Around." Twenty-five years ago a

sizzling

if small-scaled revue called "Ain’t Misbehavin’" proved a

winning homage to the great Waller. The show, originally conceived

by Richard Maltby, was so red hot, sassy and popular it moved from

the Manhattan Theater Club to Broadway where it stayed for 1,604

performances.

Its stars, (the late) Nell Carter, Andre De Shields, Armelia McQueen,

Ken Page and Charlaine Woodard became themselves virtual legends

overnight

If new legends are not likely to be made by the exuberant and

appealing

company now appearing at the Paper Mill in Milburn, the good news

is that the venerable joint is nevertheless jumpin’ these nights to

the same feverishly joyous repertoire that made audiences stand up

and cheer back in 1978.

Under the direction of Ken Roberson (also the choreographer), the

show showcases a great cast that has been carefully selected for

"Lookin’

Good but Feelin’ Bad." And with a small, but dynamite seven-piece

onstage band featuring William Foster McDaniel at the piano where

said ivories are being tickled "Black and Blue," the show

has been newly conceived. It has been primed less for spontaneous

combustion than it has for a more low-voltage celebration of one of

the great jazz pianists of the last century.

For those with no memory of the original cast, the one at the Paper

Mill, that includes E. Faye Butler, Darius de Haas, Doug Eskew, Angela

Robinson and Natasha Yvette Williams, will satisfy the most demanding

viewers. Roberson expands upon the original idea of a steamroller

of a cabaret act (basically non-stop musical numbers) by adding bits

of backstage and on-stage business and presumably giving the

performers

personality conflicts.

Considering the lack of intimacy in the Paper Mill, the inference

that there is life going on beyond the center spot does add a

dimension.

But whether that embroidery, call it gilding the "Honeysuckle

Rose," deflects from the bountiful satire, the innocent

self-mockery,

and the audacious attitude inherent in the extensive Waller canon

is something that purists may quibble about.

For the most part, the asides and digressions don’t necessarily throw

the show off kilter as much as they occasionally diminish the impact

of the songs being sung. The show, however, remains a group effort.

And this group is giving it their all. Butler, is a feisty bundle

of sass and has the Waller canon well in hand, having recently

completed

runs of "Ain’t Misbehavin’" at Arena Stage, Center Stage,

and Ogunquit Playhouse. She gets some major and deserved audience

approval to her singing "Mean to Me," as well as shared

numbers

"Honeysuckle Rose" and "I’ve Got a Feeling I’m

Falling."

Williams, a bountiful package of vocal pipes and a commanding

presence,

has a frisky sensuality that makes the most of "Squeeze Me."

But it was Williams’ genuinely funny takeoff on the wartime remembered

Kate Smith ("When the Nylons Bloom Again") that found

particular

favor with many in the audience. This is part of the World War

commemorative

medley that also features Butler and Robinson and includes such

rousers

(or relics) as "Cash For Your Trash," "Off Time,"

and "Yacht Club Swing."

Although de Haas, a fine performer with an endearing

appeal, slithers evocatively through the once provocative "The

Viper’s Song" (also known as "The Reefer’s Song"), he

can’t do more with the song than make it seem more than so much

gratuitous

pandering. De Haas displays his more ingratiating attitude with Eskew

in "How Ya Baby" and by inviting audience participation in

"Fat and Greasy." His peak is the perky duet with Robinson

"I Can’t Give You Anything But Love."

"The hefty and debonair Eskew, making his Paper Mill debut, has

no trouble making presence account for much of the show’s success

with "I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself a Letter" and

the funny "Your Feet’s Too Big." Designer Betsy Adams, who

knows just how to embrace Neil Patel’s functional set, has beautifully

lighted the show. Costumer Paul Tazewell does smartly with the earth

tones accented in Act I and dressing the entire ensemble in formal

white for Act II.

So, if everyone seems a little guilty of amending and underlying twice

what was once already written in capitals, the show, with its effusive

jitterbuggin,’ sashayin’ and struttin,’ still moves like the wind.

One of the biggest gusts comes from Robinson’s dynamically sung

"Keepin’

Out of Mischief Now." The extended finale consisting of a medley

of songs recorded, but not composed, by Waller still packs a wallop,

as does the swinging band and its pianist/musical director William

Foster McDaniel.

— Simon Saltzman

Ain’t Misbehavin’, Paper Mill, Brookside Drive, Millburn,

973-376-4343. $30 to $67. Show runs to October 19.


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