If cabin fever has you bored, the Signature Theatre has the perfect remedy, where the talented cast of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is pulling out all of the stops.
Based on the music of legendary jazz pianist and vocalist Fats Waller, this two-hour revue features 31 songs written by Waller, best known to the outside world for his out-sized comic personality and sly, paradoxical vocals. A master stride pianist who pioneered the use of the pipe organ and Hammond organ in jazz, Waller produced a bevy of hits in the 1930’s, including “The Jitterbug Waltz,” “This Joint is Jumpin,” “Mean to Me,” “Black and Blue,” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.”
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” was originally created in 1978 by Richard Maltby, Murray Horowitz and Luther Henderson and five gifted singers, with music director Mark G. Meadows on piano and a six-piece band, create an evening that is thoroughly fun and engaging.
The ensemble includes Iyona Blake, Kevin McAllister, Solomon Parker III, Nova Y. Payton and Korinn Walfall. Their sultry and sexy singing and smooth and high voltage dance moves sizzle through two acts, notable for the wide ranging emotions depicted. This includes playful banter and often over the top silliness to the profound pain beneath the public smiles because of the racism and cruelty that many blacks often endured.
Director Joe Calarco and Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway brilliantly set the mood with a Harlem Renaissance era night club that features cocktail tables close to the stage, vintage marquee lights along the balcony and onstage “dressing rooms” where the singers are portrayed behind the scenes.
The evening opens with the singers entering a back entrance, depicting the times when performers of color often had to use the back entrance where they would often perform in front of all-white audiences. From there, it’s full steam ahead with the ensemble performing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Lookin’ Good but Feeling Bad,” with each singer later having the opportunity to showcase their own dynamic vocal wizardry.
On “Honeysuckle Rose,” McAllister wows as the baritone shifts from his upper to his lower register to sexily woo Payton, who later sings “Mean to Me” with so much emotion that the bluesy ballad almost reverberates with aching pain.
During “The Viper’s Drag” Parker is superb as he slithers back and forth, offering a “joint” to audience members, his marijuana reverie punctuated by moves that range from high kicks to near stillness as he sings, “The Sky Is High and So Am I.”
McAllister is hilarious as a drunk who pokes fun at his lover’s feet on “Your Feet’s Too Big,” and Blake and Payton comically render “Find Out What They Like,” a nod to what women should do to please the men in their lives.
Singing “Fat and Greasy,” Parker and McAllister engage the audience in a joyous and enthusiastic sing along, and Meadows, playing an upright piano, is delightful as he sings, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.”
The six piece band includes Michael Bowie on bass; Carroll “CV” Dashiel III on drums; Ed Walters and Grant Langford on reeds; Kieron Irvine on trumpet; and Christopher Steele on trombone. Calarco prominently places the band onstage, smartly allowing the audience to fully take in Waller’s foot-tapping and rhythmic music.
The show’s vibrant and smooth choreography is courtesy of Jared Grimes, and lighting designer Sherri Mojgani and costume designer Sarita P. Fellows deserve kudos for their contributions to this terrific show.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is onstage through March 10. For tickets, visit SigTheatre.org.