Reviewed by Claudia Perry
"Ain't Misbehavin" -- The Irresistible "Fats" Waller Musical Show -- now playing at the Prince Music Theater is just that -- irresistible. Conceived and originally directed by Richard Maltby, Jr. it is a fast paced, high spirited romp through Thomas (aka Fats) Waller's catalogue of classic songs. The tunes, which range from circa 1922 to 1943, are either composed by Fats Waller with lyrics by various other lyricists (e.g., "Ain't Misbehavin", "Squeeze Me" "The Joint is Jumpin'") or are songs composed by others which the talented singer/songwriter/pianist made into hits. (e.g., "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie" & "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter")
Fats Waller was not only famous for his signature vocal style but for his great stride piano skills. "Stride" piano is one of the most difficult styles of Jazz piano playing to master. It derives its name from the left hand which "strides" up and down the keyboard throughout a musical number which incorporates improvisation, swing rhythms and blue notes.
A cast of six performers headed by Miss Melba Moore swings their way through these totally singable, swingable, toe tapping numbers. The show itself is in essence a delightful vaudeville - or, if you will, a musical revue with personality. And speaking of personality, performerKen Prymus is a big, huggable, teddy bear of a fellow who beguiles the audience with his smiles, his smirks, his winks, his double takes and his dead on delivery as can be witnessed in "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Your Feet's Too Big". Eugene Fleming is a smooth operator moving across the floor effortlessly with a dancer's savvy grace -- one of his highlights being "That Ain't Right" with Gabrielle Hurtt. Though the three young ladies that round out this cast are less seasoned than the two gentlemen, they all still have their delightful moments. Miss Hurtt has a stoic, statuesque presence, with a no-nonsense voice to back it up. So when this lady sings - you listen and you like it! Chanta C. Layton a big, pretty girl with a big voice, lots of sass and a wonderfully expressive face gets big laughs along with Miss Moore on the funny, sexy, "Find Out What They Like". Andrea Dora has a great, high belt voice, fine jitterbugging skills and a natural ebullience. If she could take a tip from Miss Moore and learn to focus on each actorial moment and internalize it, her already cute and energetic performance would be enhanced.
Unfortunately, the great Miss Melba Moore is not being shown off to her best advantage in this revue. Having seen her bring down the house in last season's National Tour of "Chicago" that came through Philadelphia, we know the lady has still "got it, baby!" This version of "Ain't Misbehavin' should have been restructured around a star of her stature. This would have enabled her to be featured in certain numbers (cameo spots) and allowed her to not have to participate in general group choreography which ill suits her abilities. However, we do get to watch Miss Moore show us how it's done and sing a song from the inside out in her solo number - a wrenching version of "Mean to Me". She also sparkles in her duet with Miss Layton ("Find Out What They Like") and with Ken Prymus in "Two Sleepy People"
The musical direction by Resident Musical Director, Eric Barnes keeps the show and the "Ain't Misbehavin'" six piece band skipping along at a snappy pace. Mr. Barnes also shows us how that stride piano is played. Particularly spectacular is the Entr'acte which is performed at such breakneck speed that the tempo sounds as if it's written in "one". (One beat per measure - for the layman.) The original vocal arrangements by Jeffrey Gutcheon & William Elliott are delectable and the performer's voices in this production blend beautifully. It is especially evident on group numbers such as "Black and Blue" and "Lounging at the Waldorf".
Set designer, Todd Edward Ivins has created a delicious nightclub set reminiscent of the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. Set into its center and perfectly placed is the band which looks terrific, sounds terrific and is never obtrusive - as the piano moves effortlessly back and forth as the action demands.
The First Act costumes by Mark Mariani are bright, breezy and well suited to span the large number of years covered in Act One. (The exception being Miss Moore's costume which should have been more structured and more befitting a "star". Let's face it, Miss Moore was added to the cast because she is "a star" and she should be recognized as one when she first appears onstage. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Miss Moore first appears on a platform by herself in a lackluster yellow dress. Being the tiny little slip of a woman she is, the audience does not know who she is. By the time I realized who she was - the moment for me to applaud her entrance was long gone.) Second Act wardrobe has everyone decked out in sophisticated black and rhinestones. All the ladies look snazzy, sporting large round picture hats. The saucer hats are detached after the first number to leave a rhinestone cloche hat for the rest of the act. Large, bright, feather hats and colorful boas are added for Miss Moore and Miss Layton for their comic duet to great effect.
The historically accurate choreography by Mercedes Ellington really swings with its jazzy, jitterbug moves. The only movement I questioned on stage was the use of people as extras sitting at the tables in the club. They added nothing to the proceedings as they never spoke a word nor sang a note! On the whole this is a highly entertaining evening. If you've never seen the show before then it's a must. I guarantee you will leave the theater singing at least a dozen of these great songs.