Left to right: Anastacia McClesky, Jarvis B Manning, Jr. Maiesha McQueen, Arnold Harper II, Allison Blackwell. Photo by Damiel Rader.
Barrington Stage Company
Boyd-Quinson Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts
Written by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz, directed by Jeffrey L. Page
This author hates the overuse of superlatives by theater critics, but I’m just going to declare that the Barrington Stage Company’s new production “Ain’t Misbehavin'” is one of the best musicals I’ve ever seen. —Broadway or Off-, West End, everywhere. With flawless direction and performances, the revival, choreographed and directed by Jeffrey L. Page, not only restores the legacy of black jazz pianist and composer Fats Waller (1903-1943), but also transcends its format of musical review towards a searing perspective of Black identity in white America.
In the 1970s, Broadway showman Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz initially conceived the show as a cabaret, arranging hundreds of Waller songs into about three dozen. Fully staged, the show found its way to Broadway where it won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1978. Now, decades later, under director Page’s inspired treatment, the BSC revival dramatizes again the themes of Waller’s work. We are in the 1930s, the setting is the Savoy Ballroom, Harlem’s legendary dance hall, where blacks, here a brilliant quintet of performers, strut for other blacks: the joint jumps, about the one of Waller’s most famous songs, which exuberantly concludes Act I. Act II takes performers away from Harlem to the “hoity toity”, white people, spending time “Lounging at the Waldorf” , the first numbers of the second act which signal what follows.
It’s impossible to watch “Ain’t Misbehavin'” without snapping your fingers, clapping, or sitting still. Of the five performers, none is “better” than the other. The show is made up of over 30 non-stop songs; highlights (if possible to say which one is “better” than the others) from Act 1 include “Honeysuckle Rose,” performed in a stellar duet by Arnold Harper II and Maiesha McQueen. (Harper’s baritone range is silkier than Luther Vandross’; McQueen’s sass is more sassy than that of Nell Carter who originated the role on Broadway.)
An amazing Jarvis Manning leads the quintet in the popular “T’aint Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do”. Allison Blackwell, returning to the BSC from last year’s wonderful George Gershwin review, sells the double meaning in “Squeeze Me”: “Little Cupid stands close / Come on, don’t let your fat daddy cry.” Anastacia McClesky takes the lesser-known “Yacht Club Swing,” and with a jaw-dropping dance routine, croons “there’s magic in a slow soothing ripple / It makes you dance even though you’re crippled.” Paralyze? It’s lyrics like this that are key to Waller’s subversive irony about being black.
This theme ends poignantly in a succession of skilfully calibrated figures in Act II. Manning, moving like a wet noodle, almost brings the show to a halt with “The Viper’s Drag” also known as “Reefer Song”. Continuing to bare the courage to be black, Manning and Harper almost take the roof off with “Fat and Greasy,” bringing the audience to an ecstatic appreciation of these “descending” guys. The guys change their mood drastically and look at the audience, as if to say: can you handle the truth? Next, the ensemble performs a heartbreaking rendition of “Black and Blue”: “How will this end? Has no friend. / My only sin is my skin. What do I done to be so black and blue?
Every aspect of the show reinforces the excellence of the other, from costume designer Oana Botez’s super-stylized zoot suits to Raul Abrego’s Art-Deco ensemble. Music Director Kwinton Gray, in collaboration with his 6-piece band, reinvigorates Luther Henderson’s original orchestrations. Director Page’s choreography is explosive, recreating what we can imagine as the vibrancy of Harlem’s old dance halls. Waller’s jazzy melodies sway, fade and soar, but pay attention to his lyrics. One could consider Waller as a Black Cole Porter; this superb “Ain’t Misbehavin’” makes us consider Porter as a White Fats Waller.