Either by association or direct composition, the legendary composer/pianist/entertainer Fats Waller (1904 to 1943) was famed for “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around.” Thirty-three 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, and its stars (the late) Nell Carter, Andre De Shields, Armelia McQueen, Ken Page, and Charlaine Woodard became themselves virtual legends overnight. Only time will tell if the exuberant and appealing production appearing at the Crossroads Theater will give birth to any new legends. But based on their performances on opening night, they are well on their way.
It is a pleasure to report that “the joint” (with a respectful apology to Crossroads Theater) in New Brunswick will definitely be jumpin’ through Sunday, October 23, to the same feverishly joyous repertoire that has kept audiences clapping and cheering in many of our regional theaters and even abroad since 1978. Under the direction of Andre De Shields, who was a member of the original Broadway company and is now also serving as choreographer, the production showcases a great cast that has been carefully selected for (in keeping with the dictates of the Fats Waller song) “Lookin’ Good But Feelin’ Bad.” The handsome black and gold set, including the painted piano keys on the stage floor, designed by Burke Wilmore (who also did the splashy lighting) reflects the vogue for Art Deco during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.
In addition to having De Shields at the helm, there was the added treat of seeing the show’s original musical director, J. Leonard Oxley, at the piano to heighten our joy (“One never knows, do one”) where said ivories are being tickled “Black and Blue.” In this era of deconstructing musical classics, De Shields has happily not ventured far from the original’s presentational style and keeps the back-to-back songs coming at us as if they were the result of spontaneous combustion.
Whether we call it a high-voltage celebration of one of the great jazz pianists of the 20th century or simply a testimony to the kind of spirit-lifting, soul-satisfying, and sensory-captivating music that largely defined an era, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is still much more than a steamroller of a cabaret show. Be assured the De Shields (he looked smashing greeting people in the lobby with his inimitable warm smile and wearing a fire-engine red tuxedo) makes sure there is plenty of time and space for the five super performers to have fun with personality conflicts, dramatic interplay, and comedic horseplay that have define their characters. And let’s not forget the deliciously sexy-as-hell subtext that drives the show.
This is one show that doesn’t need much embroidery, call it gilding the “Honeysuckle Rose,” to deflect from the bountiful satire, innocent self-mockery, and the audacious attitude inherent in the extensive Waller repertoire. There is plenty of attitude to be seen in the stunning, glittery, but not gaudy, attire that Deborah Caney has provided for the three women and the ultra dapper ensembles for two men.
Despite the impact made by individual performers, the show remains a group effort with most numbers showcasing each of them as part of an electrifying ensemble. However, it would be remiss not to mention Johmaalya Adelekan, a feisty package of sizzling sensuality who undoubtedly means it when she sings “Squeeze Me.” She is also quite marvelous poking fun at the wartime-remembered bellowing of Kate Smith with “When the Nylons Bloom Again.” This is part of the World War II commemorative medley that also features Rheume Crenshaw and Zurin Villanueva and includes such rousers (relics?) as “Cash For Your Trash,” “Off Time,” and “Yacht Club Swing.”
Crenshaw has that unique vocal quality that will bring back the memory of Nell Carter, but she puts her own dynamic stamp on such favorites as “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” and “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling.” And again conspiring with Villanueva and Adelekan, she adds the kind of provocative edge to “Find Out What They Like” that brings it close to being a show-stopper — as do many of the numbers. Villanueva, who is as slim and rambunctious as Crenshaw and Adelekan are zaftig and sassy, takes our breath away with the rapidly fired gem “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed.”
Tyrone Davis, Jr. who is playing the part originated by De Shields, slithers evocatively through the once provocative but still amusingly insinuating “The Viper’s Song” (also known as “The Reefer’s Song”). A sensational dancer, he also gets plenty of opportunities to also display his ingratiating personality in “How Ya Baby” partnering with the leggy Vallanueva and by inviting audience participation in “Fat and Greasy.”
Jacob Ming-Trent has no trouble making his 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.” His girth doesn’t stop him from becoming as much a contributor as anyone in the dancing portions, as bracingly choreographed by De Shields.
De Shields has found himself a cast that not only does the Waller legacy proud but also supports it with the kind of effusive jitterbuggin,’ sashayin,’ and struttin,’ that makes this show one of the most entertaining and fun shows you are currently likely to find. The extended finale, consisting of a medley of songs recorded (but not composed) by Waller, also packs a wallop, as do the sixterrific musicians who comprise the onstage band. It confirms that this is one production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” that should not be missed.
“Ain’t Misbehavin,’” through Sunday, October 23, Crossroads Theater Company, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $50. 732-545-8100.