Musical revues aren’t easy to pull off. Audience members feel cheated if their favorite song is missing, but they also crave surprises. This show includes Waller’s classics, “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint is Jumpin’” and “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now”.
Waller helped shape the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’ and 30’s. In his short lifetime – 39 years - he composed hundreds melodies. Imagine the challenge of selecting the final sampling of songs for this revue.
Because Waller recorded music by other contemporary composers, a few of those songs are included as well. The result : over 30 numbers with a satisfying variety of moods, tempos and styles. Blues, swing, and novelty songs are just a few of the genres.
Ted Koehler’s lyrics for “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” – one of the jazzy non-Waller songs - best capture the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, e.g.,
Little people who ain’t got nuttin’
Join the people who live on Sutton.
Everybody is out there struttin’
Spreading rhythm around.
"Ain’t Misbehavin’" is an ensemble show with five multi-talented singers: two males and three females, who are shuffled and reshuffled in various combinations for visual and vocal variety. Solo vocals are interspersed. Remarkable also are the onstage band and featured pianist, each musician with an opportunity to display his virtuosity.
Michael Hamilton’s expert direction and staging create one well-oiled machine. This harmonized show is further enhanced by pitch-perfect period costumes, scenic designs and lighting effects – each glamorous without screaming, “Look at me!” Special kudos to James Wolk for his stylish art deco settings. The period set of an NBC radio studio is an unexpected treat.
Pianist Adaron “Pops” Jackson puts his own imprint on the syncopated rhythms at the ornamental upright. It’s a pleasure to watch an artist who not only excels at his craft, but clearly loves his job. All the singers have the chops and display exceptional articulation and phrasing. Their harmony and counterpoint are flawless. Each entertainer demonstrates special talents that distinguish his/her performance.
As Armelia, Raena White’s flirtatious charm belies her potent voice. Her solo, “Squeeze Me” is a perfect choice for Armelia, the tease. White’s style blends innocence and sophistication reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe performance of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”.
Dwelvan David brings a muscular presence to the role of Ken. David specializes in broad comedy and audience interplay. His facial expressions morph elastically in the novelty song, essay writer “Your Feet’s Too Big”. He follows Waller’s penchant for comic entertainment. Are we having a good time? Yes, yes, yes.
As Charlaine, Wendy Lynette Fox moves with grace and fluidity. Versatility is her gift, portraying sultry and playful with credibility. She also knows when to sing it straight. Her solo, “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” is a deceptively simple song. She allows the music and lyrics to speak for themselves without embellishment.
Eric Lajuan Summers portrays Andre. Summers oozes talent as he displays mesmerizing movement and dramatization. He reminds me of a young Ben Vereen with a lithe body that undulates, blurring the distinction between dance and ambulation. These qualities are just the thing for “The Viper’s Drag”. It’s not the best material of the show, but Summers makes it a show-stopper.
Willena Vaughn plays Nell, the role originated by Nell Carter, who won a Tony Award for her performance. It’s a tough act to follow, but Vaughn never disappoints. She handles a variety of musical styles with apparent ease, infusing each with appropriate overtones, whether bawdy, sentimental or bluesy. I especially enjoy her in the contrapuntal, “Lounging at the Waldorf,” in which she introduces her brassy wah wah. Encore! Encore!
My only disappointment is the lack of extended dance sequences. The great Lindy Hop, Charleston and Balboa tunes deserve a stronger dance element.
"Ain’t Misbehavin’" overflows with rhythm and vigor, yet it knows when to say goodnight. This revue provides just the right amount of entertainment. As my 90-year old Mother says, “Leave ‘em wanting more.”
"Ain’t Misbehavin’" runs through runs through July 1, 2012 at STAGES, located at 111 S. Geyer Road in Kirkwood. Information is available at www.stagesstlouis.org or by calling 314-821-2407.