Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, February 2006
“The joint is jumpin’,
It’s really jumpin’,
Come in cats an’ check your hats,
I mean this joint is jumpin’.
The piano’s thumpin’,
The dancers bumpin’.
This here spot is more than hot,
In fact the joint is jumpin’”
– Andy Razaf and J. C. Johnson
I once had the fun of standing outside an old wooden opera house during a lively musical production and watching the building literally shudder and wriggle – barely able to contain the excitement within.
I was not outside the Cohoes Music Hall at any time during the performance of Ain’t Misbehavin’ and even if I had been that structure is made of sturdier stuff so that I doubt there was any external evidence, but on the inside that joint was jumpin’ from stem to stern as five fabulously talented people shimmied, pranced, crooned and wailed their way through two hours worth of “Fats” Waller’s memorable music.
I am notorious for disliking musical revues as a genre, and if I were going to point a finger at the culprit responsible for the start of the craze for plot-less musical evenings billed as theatre I would level my gaze squarely in the direction of the 1978 Tony award-winning Broadway production of Ain’t Misbehavin’.
But there is a big difference between this highly entertaining original and its numerous pale imitators. Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller (1904-1943) was one of the foremost American composers of popular music in the first half of the 20th century, and merely because of the color of his skin he was overlooked and denigrated. Richard Maltby, Jr. did us all a tremendous favor by assembling this magnificent collection of Waller’s works. There are no dialogue, plot, or characters because this show is all about the man and his music, and his music speaks for itself.
February, short and universally loathed for its bad weather, is Black History Month. Waller’s music is universal in its appeal because of its undeniable excellence, but it is also thoroughly and proudly Black. Five beautiful and talented people of color take the stage in Cohoes and prove both points eloquently. Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a true celebration of 20th century American Black Culture and living proof that a history lesson doesn’t have to be boring nor culminate in a quiz counting for 40% of your grade.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ is also a celebration of human sexuality. I felt positively indecent seeing a matinee performance! Even if the performers had stood stock still and kept their hands to themselves (which they didn’t), the music, lyrics, and Terri White*’s boisterous direction and choreography make it plain enough that God created us male and female and that there is great joy in all the various combinations possible.
The cast of Ain’t Misbehavin’ consists of two gentlemen – Jarrett Ali Boyd and Thay Floyd – and three ladies – Amma Osei, Melissa VanPelt, and Nakee Michelle White*. Visually they are a delightful assemblage of body types and vocally they mix and match beautifully.
Floyd and White have appeared before locally to my great acclaim and they did not disappoint this time around. Long and lean, Floyd is an amazing dancer. Just watching him walk across the stage is a treat, and he got plenty of chances to show off his terpsichorean talents in How Ya Baby and The Viper’s Drag as well as many group numbers.
Osei is a tall broad broad with a soaring soprano which is put to good use hitting all the high notes in the group harmony numbers. She used the lower end of her range to sell her solos Squeeze Me and That Ain’t Right. In comparison White is short and round with a low sultry voice that struck a plaintive note in her solo Mean To Me and paired nicely with Boyd’s on the classic Honeysuckle Rose.
And on the third hand there is VanPelt, a tiny, skinny woman full of pep. She was handy for Floyd to toss about during the vigorous dance numbers, and she did a nice job vocally on Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.
Boyd, who born a passing facial resemblance to Waller himself in his bowler hat, is a solid partner to White on Honeysuckle Rose and gives a feisty and funny rendition of one of my favorite Waller songs Your Feet’s Too Big.
A seven piece band, one of the largest musical ensembles I can remember seeing at Cohoes, under the direction of pianist Nathan Perry, sits on the stage behind the performance space. Kudos to the talented Graham Doig on trombone, Steve Lambert on trumpet, Tony Riccobono on bass, John Van Voris and Dave Lambert on reeds, and Mary E. Rodriguez on drums and percussion. Set Designer Stephanie Logue has added a lower apron to the front of the stage to expand the playing area and bring the performers closer to the audience – used to strong effect by Director White in The Viper’s Drag and the grand finale.
I always appreciate when well-trained singers are allowed to perform without amplification, as is usually the case at Cohoes. With the band upstage and most of the songs delivered downstage, everybody is audible when they sing. But the few times they speak, or when dialogue patter is part of the lyrics to a song it is very hard to hear. I worry that I missed a few bawdy jokes that I would have enjoyed!
I love, love, loved Khryn Diotte’s costumes! Everybody – the short, the tall, the wide, and the narrow – looked gorgeous and sexy, which is exactly how they should look in a revue like this where they are playing their fabulous selves and not some costumed characters. And everything stayed properly put during all the dance and gyrations.
Logue’s set is simple and stylish – just a few café chairs and tables and a handsomely draped and embellished scrim surrounding the band. Sadly, either Ken Weinberg’s lighting design was way off or the person running the follow spot had hoisted a few before curtain because there were several moments when the lights seemed to swoop about before settling on the proper subject.
I highly recommend this production as the perfect Valentine’s date. Grab your sweetie – I don’t care whether you’ve been legally married for 53 years or met half and hour earlier in the produce section at Price Chopper, just so long as you turn each other on – and get yourselves to the Cohoes Music Hall. Maybe a nice drink and some dancing afterwards. I promise you it will be the hottest date you’ve had in quite some time!
Ain’t Misbehavin’, presented by C-R Productions, runs weekends through February 19 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. The show runs two hours with one intermission. There are references to adult activities like sex and drinking alcohol, as well as illegal drug use, so keep younger children home and use your discretion with young teens. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.
* = Because the director Terri White and performer Nakee Michelle White share a last name, for clarity they will be referred to as Director White and White in this review.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006