Through Sat 7/22
Ain’t Misbehavin’, now on stage at Porthouse Theatre, is a musical tribute to the black musicians of the 1920s and ’30s who were part of the Harlem Renaissance. It was an era of black ethnic pride and creativity related to Negro literature, art, poetry, and music.
The show owes its title to the 1919 Fats Waller song, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which was a staple at the Cotton Club and Savoy Ballroom, where whites and blacks of New York society paid tribute to the vocal divas and piano players who showcased swing music.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a musical revue, a series of songs by various composers and lyricists, presented one after another with no verbal bridges in between the numbers. The revue format requires top-quality performers and musicians who are capable of performing number after number in a manner that grabs and holds the audience’s attention. In general, this format has faded from popularity, replaced by the jukebox musical in which songs, written before the idea of putting them together in a stage show, are blended into a story line (Mama Mia, Jersey Boys).
The Porthouse production has a talented cast of singers and performers: Chantrell Lewis, Aveena Sawyer, Tina Stump, Eugene Sumlin and Jim Weaver. Show highlights include “The Viper’s Drag”/”The Reefer Song,” “Squeeze Me,” as well as the jitterbug dance number “How Ya Baby,” the vaudeville flashback tune “The Ladies Who Sing with the Band,” and the stride piano-centered “Handful of Keys.”
The audience exploded with applause, often singing along, to the show’s closing unit of Fats Waller-made hits, ‘I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter,” “Two Sleepy People,” I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed,” “I Can’t Give You Anything Else But Love” and “It’s A Sin To Tell a Lie.”
To make the show really work, the band must be exceptional. Music director/pianist Edward Ripley, Jr., drummer James Alexander II and bass player Jeremy Poparad, who are on a stage in full view of the audience, are exceptionally good musicians, but showed little physical or facial enthusiasm, putting a damper on the proceedings and causing a disconnect between themselves and the performers.
Director Eric van Baars kept the pace rapid, varied the choreographic movements and created interesting stage pictures. He might have considered cutting some of the over 30 songs as, after a while, the all-too-much similar musical sounds became somewhat tedious.
Patrick Ulrich’s dual-level stage, complete with an edging of black and white painted piano keys, worked well. Susan J. Williams’ costume designs were era-correct.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a musical revue which will be of interest to those who like 1920 and ’30s Harlem Renaissance swing music. Be aware that the show, though nicely performed, has over 30 songs and no story line.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ runs through Sat 7/22 at Porthouse Theatre. For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go to porthousetheatre.com.
[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]