Westport Country Playhouse has the house jumping with the Fats Waller revue, Ain’t Misbehavin’, a co-production with Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, New York, directed by Jeffrey L. Page.
Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller died at the young age of 39 in 1943, but in the 25 years that he was active as a musician he became one of the greatest jazz composers of all time with classic songs like “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Black and Blue” have found their way into the Great American Songbook.
In 1978, the musical revue Ain’t Misbehavin’, conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz, opened on Broadway, running 1,604 performances, nearly four years.
The musical features a septet of talented musicians under the leadership of pianist and music director Terry Bogart, and a quintet of vocalists, Miya Bass, Paris Bennett, Jay Copeland, Judith Franklin, and Will Stone. Looking at their bios, three of the five performers come from vocal competition backgrounds like American Idol and X Factor. It makes sense to do this as the focus of the show is more toward elevating the music than acting, and as far as voices go, the cast doesn’t disappoint. All five are powerhouses and present Waller’s music with the respect it’s due.
With this production, the second act is stronger than the first as the first act definitely had a negative effect on some of the audience as the couple next to me left during intermission.
I can understand why people may leave the show. There’s no book, so no story to the musical, and maybe Fats Waller isn’t your style of music. But, frankly, these are things you should know before seeing Ain’t Misbehavin’, so if musical revues and Harlem Stride jazz isn’t your thing, then this just isn’t your show, and I respect that.
I do think that what the show could have benefited from was maybe a little narrative by the cast members giving a brief couple lines of the history of Waller here and there to maybe give context to the songs. As much as I enjoy his music, I’d have liked to learn more about the man behind it.
There are many elements that make Ain’t Misbehavin’ so much fun though. The song selections and locations in the setlist create a balance of jazzy dance songs, powerhouse ballads, hysterical comic pieces, and a moment or two here and there of real depth of humanity.
Judith Franklin does a wonderful rendition of “Keeping Out of Mischief Now,” Will Stone rolls through the hysterical “Your Feet’s Too Big,” and Miya Bass and Paris Bennett are a delightful comic duo in “Find Out What They Like.”
Copeland, though, is the one who brings down the house with the electric “The Viper’s Drag/The Reefer Song.” He strides across the stage with a seductive glee throughout the number.
I love Raul Abrego’s art deco set design, particularly the little touches of the buildings as part of the dressing for the band’s music stands, and the bars on either side of the stage create an atmospheric location for the cast to retreat to when they’re not the focus of the number but still need to be on stage. I may be expressing my own ignorance here, but the incorporation of African art into the art deco arches is a nice touch.
Oana Botez’ costumes are awesome. I love the suits and dresses that the cast come out in at the start of the second act for “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” and Philip Rosenberg has some fantastic lighting moments, particularly in the transition from the hysterical “Fat and Greasy,” led by Stone and Copeland, into the somber and sober “Black and Blue.” Though Ain’t Misbehavin’ has no book, I’m fine without it. This is music I’ve loved for most of my life. I almost wish Westport went full out and ripped out all the seats and turned the theater into a Harlem nightclub with cabaret tables and cocktails served throughout the show. But understanding the restrictions of the house, that wasn’t going to happen. Page has directed a delightful cast, and assembled an energetic powerhouse show.
Westport Country Playhouse
25 Powers Ct, Westport, CT
Now through April 29