As a composer and often comical piano performer in the first half of the 20th century, Fats Waller was never very good at “keepin’ out of mischief.” His delightfully infectious melodies, paired with sublime syncopated riffs and some sexually suggestive and culturally pungent lyrics (with lyrics often written by Andy Razaf), can make your toes tap and your brain dance.
Much of that magic is on display in Ain’t Misbehavin’ now at the Cleveland Play House. This production, co-developed with the Arizona Theatre Company and the San Jose Repertory Theatre, fairly bursts with energy from start to finish. However, that electrifying level of full-out performing turns out to be a mixed blessing.
Accompanied by a piano and a 7-piece orchestra, the five singers essay Waller’s well known tunes (the title song, “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’”) as well as many lesser-known ditties. And in each successive song—there is precious little dialogue—director Kent Gash never holds back, empowering his performers to mug, shimmy, bump and grind against each other, and bleed every number of every drop of sexual tension and easy laughs.
At times, this approach works quite well. Christopher L. Morgan is sensuously sinister in “The Viper Drag/The Reefer Song” lowered shirtless from above so he can sidle up to audience members and declare his love of the giggle weed: “I’m dreamin’ of a reefer five feet long.” And all the singers (including Rebecca Covington, Angela Grovey, Ken Robinson and Aurelia Williams) do a fine job with the challenging piece “A Handful of Keys” in which they vocally mimic the dynamics of a stride piano.
But other songs are just slightly off kilter, due to a reliance on excessive over-acting or an insistence on lapsing into American Idol-style, high-volume anthem singing, instead of just letting the songs dictate the mood. As a result, in even a great ballad such as “Mean to Me,” Grovey feels the need to spike the loudness needle when a simpler, more heartfelt approach might be more effective.
There are other times when the cast seems unable to fashion a quick mini-character for a novelty song. In “Yacht Club Swing,” Covington mistakes singing (way) off-key with creating a ditzy gal singer of the time, and Robinson never seems as truly offended as he should be by the enormous pedal extremities referenced in “Your Feet’s Too Big.”
But if you like explosions of energy on stage, this gang dances up a storm. And they execute one simply exquisite number when they all calm down, and form a line of chairs to deliver the haunting “Black and Blue.” That single song of racial pain (“’Cause you’re black, folks think you lack/They laugh at you, and scorn you too/What did I do to be so black and blue?”) may be worth the price of admission all by itself.
Through February 21 at the
Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue,