Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
Ain't Misbehavin', The Fats Waller Musical Show, conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz.
Songs by Fats Waller.
Choreographed and Directed by Jeffrey L. Page.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"You're perfection, goodness knows"
This show displeased me greatly back in 1978 when it pleased and excited its audiences. Richard Maltby, Jr.'s concept was just too dependent on stereotypes of mid century black for me. I loved the songs - still do - and the talent of the artists on stage was so special. I just hated watching the show (it was hit with 1604 performances in spite of me). Now, more than forty years later and under the very talented hand of director/choreographer Jeffrey L. Page, the show is spectacular, performed with an equal amount of talent but without that white judgmental sense of the original. In two parts, each about an hour long, the world of Waller opens up to us artfully and romantically and with a sadness that stirs the heart. Part One brings us into the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem sometime in the 1930s. Part two, set in the war years of the 1940s, allows the five performers to mix with the Hoity-Toity society folk. Jefrey Page is fascinated by the masks people wear to get along in the world and he uses Waller's songs to show us what's beneath the invisible masks his characters wear.
The "ladies who sing with the band" are fabulous here. Soprano Maiesha McQueen draws you into her world with "Honeysuckle Rose" a duet with bass-baritone Arnold Harper, II whose tall, wide body makes him a romantic foil like none other. Anastacia McClesky's rich, high-edged alto voice brings total honesty to "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now." Allison Blackwell, back for a third season, implores us all with "Squeeze Me," and we want to hug her hard.
The men are an interesting couple, more unalike as can be. More on them later. Suffice it to say they are more than equal to the task of partnering these three women.
Anastacia McClesky, Jarvis B Manning, Jr. Maiesha McQueen,
Arnold Harper II, Allison Blackwell;
Photo: Damiel Rader
Allison Blackwell, Maiesha McQueen, Anastacia McClesky;
Photo: Daniel Rader.
The various combinations of voices seems unending in this show with solos, duets, trios and ensembles. The vocal harmonies are credited to Jeffrey Gutcheon and they work as well now as they ever have, placing the songs where they belong, at the forefront of the production. Lyrical as it all is in reality the songs in this show often seem to be been newly created by improvisatory artists. While the ensembles are marvelous, nothing beats the trio of female voices on numbers such as "When the Nylons Bloom Again," which blew me away. This special quality gives the show a unique place on the stage. It's as though the show is being created and performed just for us.
Allison Blackwell, Jarvis B. Manning, Jr.; Photo: Daniel Rader
The show starts with songs and swiftly moves to dance. Page as choreographer has total control over what we see. His concept of masks without masks needs movement to open our minds to his message. He does this with a combination of social dance, balletic arrangements, modern feeling and strictly choreographed relationships. It is brilliant and a joy to watch as his unstated mask issues invade our imaginations.
The beautiful production is Page's legacy here with a team of designer that take over with imagination and historical premise. The set, for example, is the Savoy Ballroom, a popular spot in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.Did it ever look as fabulous as on the Barrington Stage? I don't know. Raul Obrego's superb design will now define the place for me. It is expertly lighted by designer Tom Ontiveros who has worked on various levels for this show. Oana Botez's costumes are smart, amusing and period-free giving them a universal aspect. It works fine for the show without forcing us into a time period or a previously anticipated set of images. Only the sound design fails; it doesn't make voices crisp or highlights the words of Waller's songs.
Allison Blackwell, Arnold Harper II, Anastacia McClesky, Jarvis B. Manning, Jt., Maiesha McQueen;
Photo: Daniel Rader
Arnold Harper II; Photo: Daniel Rader
But let's not forget the men in the show. Jarvis B. Manning, Jr. is a remarkable dance performer with a body that seems to stretch out to over six feet long at times. He sings well, too, which is absolutely unfair to the rest of the performing world. His is a performance to remember because you cannot do otherwise. Arnold Harper II has the sort of voice that sinks into you and holds your heart and your guts for a long, long time. He is another one whose memory will last as long as you can call up the songs he sings in your memory. Just mention "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" and I'll hear his melancholic voice and melt away once again. In a company of young stars he is the show's brightest light.
Director Jeffrey L. Page has triumphed with this show, brining home to roost the wonderful songs of an almost forgotten genius, Fats Waller. The man's name may not make you wish to be a part of somthing wonderful, but once you experience the show for yourself his name will be emblazoned on your soul. There is no denying that the songs you don't know will become your favorites: "Your Feet's Too Big," "Black and Blue" and even "T'ain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do" will come to haunt you. . .in a good way.
+ 06/19/2022 +
Ain't Misbehavin' plays at Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA through July 9. For tickets and information go to their website, www.barringtonstageco.org or call the box office at 413-236-8888.