‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ ’ a rousing triumph at Porchlight
By HEDY WEISS Theater Critic February 4, 2014 7:38PM
Lina Wass (from left), Robin DaSilva, Shariese Hamilton. Donterrio Johnson, Lorenzo Rush, Jr. And Austin Cook on piano star in "Ain't Misbehavin'" at Porchlight Music Theatre. | PHOTO BY KELSEY JORISSEN
‘AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ ’
When: Through March 9
Where: Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 777, 1225 W. Belmont
Info: (773) 327-5252;
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes,
with one intermission
Updated: February 5, 2014 7:23PM
It was back in 1978, in the rather unglamorous cabaret space that then housed the Manhattan Theatre Club, that I first saw “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” the electrifying, ingeniously conceived revue that paid homage to the infectious music of Thomas “Fats” Waller (1904-1942), the jazz pianist, organist, composer, singer, and larger-than-life “comedic entertainer” whose brilliant riffs on the Harlem stride style were immensely influential.
The musical, with a book by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr., and 30 songs (mostly by Waller, along with Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf), very quickly moved to Broadway and became a Tony Award-winning show biz phenomenon, catapulting such performers as Nell Carter, Andre DeShields and Charlayne Woodard to fame.
Those performers may have been irresistible. But the cast of the current Porchlight Music Theatre production easily match them, including: Robin DaSilva (the clarion-voiced “big mama”); Sharriese Hamilton (the sassy, doll-faced beauty); Lina Wass (the lady with a sultry edge); Donterrio Johnson (a fearsome, smoke-swirling miscreant as “The Viper”), and Lorenzo Rush Jr. (a large but exceptionally graceful man with a wonderfully rubbery face who serves as Waller’s alter ego).
But that’s far from all. There also is the altogether amazing Austin Cook, the show’s high-wired onstage pianist, actor, repairman (he began fixing a broken pedal midway through Monday’s final preview before another upright was moved into place). Cook also conducts the sensational band comprised of Shaun Johnson, Rajiv Halim, Michael Weatherspoon and Chris Thigpen.
Add to this the dazzling talents of Brenda Didier, a certified miracle-worker of a director and choreographer (the force behind Theo Ubique’s recent hit, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”), and ace music director Jaret Landon (“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill”), and you’ve got a show awash in the spirit of such uptown Harlem Renaissance boites as the Cotton Club and Savoy Ballroom and such posh downtown spots as the Waldorf, a wild and racy rent party, a World War II recycling campaign, golden radio days and double-entendre-filled blues and novelty songs that wink at sex and off-hours vices.
The show (handsomely framed by designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s stylish nightclub set, with countless period costumes by Bill Morey) begins with a vintage recording of Fats himself offering this self-portrait: “285 pounds of jam, jive and everything.” That just about says it. Although at one crucial moment, the pain behind all the exuberance, mischief and playful naughtiness is revealed as the five black performers join in gorgeous harmony for “Black and Blue,” a song that suggests the bruises incurred by living in a racist society.
But fun and off-the-charts galvanic energy are the main orders of the day in this show, as songs of romance, jealousy and betrayal mix with numbers offering sex tips and social satire, as dancers jump on wooden boards to tap out one number, break into a Charleston, swing or waltz in others, and move easily from torch songs and blues to doo wop. In one particularly sensational number, “Handful of Keys,” the performers even turn themselves into a band.
Talk about “Spreadin’ the Rhythm Around.” Pure joy.