Sunday, January 31, 2016

ASF: "Ain't Misbehavin'"

The joint is jumpin'!!! -- On opening night at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, after two hours of a non-stop celebration of legendary Fats Waller's music, the audience jumped to their feet and cheered director James Bowen's five ensemble actors and Joel Jones' terrific seven-piece band. Mr. Bowen and Company should be justifiably proud to know that (in an idea borrowed from a friend) "they've made somebody's life a little better for a couple of hours."

Ain't Misbehavin' is a (mostly) feel-good party set in scenic designer Jesse Dreikosen cabaret club reminiscent of the glamor and sophistication of the Harlem nightclubs of the 1930s and 1940s. -- In its frolicsome, worldly, and occasionally ribald versions of some 30+ songs from the Fat Waller repertoire, there is hardly a moment when Waller's sly take on love and relationships in the midst of World War and Depression Era angst isn't front and center; yet, the defense mechanism often present shows up regularly in the escapist devil-may-care attitudes of the company: a surface cheerfulness belies the uncertainty of the future.

The one sobering moment comes midway in Act II with "Black and Blue", an intensely controlled query of the plight of African-Americans then and now, who are judged too often by the color of their skin, and not by the content of their character. As in Paul Lawrence Dunbar's poem "We Wear the Mask", behind the mask of laughter and seeming contentment there is pain, and the strategically placed song is all the more potent here because the audience has become attached to these exuberant actors and their music.

And that's what it's all about: the versatility and brilliance of the performances. Each actor is gifted with a fine singing voice and engaging personality, and each is afforded ample opportunities to showcase their individual and collective talents. Bianca Horn delivers some in-your-face antics with "Yacht Club Swing" and "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie" and produces a sincerely moving rendition of "Mean to Me"; Shinnerrie Jackson is coquettish with "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" and "Honeysuckle Rose" in a duet with Juson Williams. Mr. Williams shines also in comic numbers like "Your Feet's Too Big"; Eric LaJuan Summers joins Mr. Williams and encourages audience participation in "Fat and Greasy" and is all swagger in "'T Ain't Nobody's Business if I Do", and his rendition of "The Viper's Drag/The Reefer Song" mixes broad comedy with some sinister elements; and Fredena J. Williams imbues almost every number with sophisticated innuendo and a knowing twinkle in her eye: "Squeeze Me" and "When the Nylons Bloom Again" are standouts.

There is so much robust energy in the group numbers -- "Lookin' Good but Feelin' Bad", "A Handful of Keys", "Spreadin' Rhythm Around", "The Joint is Jumpin'", and the title song "Ain't Misbehavin'" among them -- that audiences come away energized and happy.

Though there is virtually no book/scripted dialogue, the personalities of the actors shine through with their frequent side comments and put downs, and self-aware digs at themselves and one another...all in a lighthearted manner that has audiences liking them from start to finish. They conscript us in the goings-on so we can laugh with them and share their experiences.

It's amazing what a couple of hours of unrestrained good will can do to take away the Winter's chill: "One never one?!"