The cast of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” may be compact, but together their contagious energy and supreme vocal power could rival musicals with a battalion of singers.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical Show,” now onstage at the Signature Theatre, is like walking into a jewel-toned music box with its richly colored set design and sparkling costumes. It’s a jolting and welcome contrast to these cold and gray winter days.
The Arlington company has transformed its MAX theater into a warm and cozy speakeasy, evoking the era of the Harlem Renaissance. Small lamps with those little hanging crystals rest on café tables at the edge of the stage (regular seating is also available), and a generous amount of marquee lighting adds to the nightclub atmosphere. Beyond the main stage are two dressing rooms and an elevated walkway, which offer audiences a tiny glimpse into the loving, fighting and jealous rants—mostly wordless—among the three women and two men when they’re not piling on the smiles and charm for the audiences.
However, don’t expect any semblance of a storyline as the tight-knit cast burns their way through more than 30 songs in this crowd-pleasing musical tribute to the jazz pianist, sublimely directed by Joe Calarco.
Signature has rounded up a talented cast and crew to celebrate the music of Thomas “Fats” Waller, a popular player during the Harlem Renaissance. Songs from the beloved Broadway hit, which took home the 1978 Tony for best musical, are exuberantly brought to life by Iyona Blake, Kevin McAllister, Solomon Parker III, Nova Y. Payton and Korinn Walfall. It’s lovely to see McAllister and Payton together again onstage after the powerhouse singers starred as the doomed Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Sarah in Ford’s “Ragtime” a few years back. Their playfully sexy “Honeysuckle Rose” is one of the show’s early treats. Another heavy hitter in the vocal department is Blake, and when she’s paired up with Payton, look out.
With a lengthy catalog of songs, there are plenty of opportunities for cast members to shine on their own—from Blake’s sultry performance of “Squeeze Me,” one of Waller’s first songs, to Payton’s emotion-filled “Mean to Me” to McAllister’s foot-stomping “Your Feet’s Too Big,” which is just random and pure fun.
One of the biggest highlights is Parker’s slow and slinky performance of “The Viper’s Drag.” Aided by Jared Grimes’ cool choreography, Parker entrances the audience as he slithers his way around the stage—with cigarette in hand.
For this show, the band is out in front enjoying all the action, instead of sitting behind a screen. Mark G. Meadows, who played Jelly Roll Morton in “Jelly’s Last Jam,” returns to tickle the ivories and serve as the show’s musical director. He’s terrific here again, and it’s fun to watch him get in on the act, like when he’s reacting to McAllister’s never-ending belting. Joining Meadows onstage are Michael Bowie on bass, Carroll “CV” Dashiel III on drums, Kieron Irvine on trumpet, Christopher Steele on trombone and reed players Ed Walters and Grant Langford.
With spirited performances and toe-tapping melodies, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” brings some much-needed vibrancy into the post-holiday winter blues.