Rep’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ Better Than Broadway
The triple threat performers arguably outshine those of the original Broadway show.
First with Woody Sez and now with Ain’t Misbehavin’ through May 18 at the Stackner Cabaret, the Milwaukee Rep has gone audacious. It’s not relying on imitators of certain famous celebrities, but on “multiple threat” talents who once they hit their stride are revitalizing and elevating the concept of musical theater.
Professionals who can do it all are dominating the Stackner. They solo memorably, but harmonize in almost operatic skill and recitative freedom. They banter with the audience. They play musical instruments. They even cart stage props from side to side for speed, while reading music and using earpieces and mikes for audio compatibility so as to never impede dancing and movement.
All that requires imaginative casting, detailed rehearsal, constant musical tuning and some astounding talents. And they are needed to explore the definitive Harlem Renaissance songbook of Fats Waller and friends whose stride piano, mischievous rhymes and infectious rhythms defined the 1920s and 1930s and probably the American jazz inheritance.
It is unfair to go back 36 years to the star-studded Broadway version of Ain’t Misbehavin’ – which also had authenticity and presentational problems but leaned on celebrity power to overcome the inevitable comparison to the originals decades before when that songbook swept over America — the Cotton Club, Bessie Smith, Broadway’s “Hot Chocolates” revue, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and Fats himself.
Comparisons to the Broadway original are unfair because the Rep performers are probably better. They don’t just solo and strut on celebrity status. They can harmonize, counterpoint and blend, which the Broadway cast avoided. They can do something not required on Broadway – bouncing five performers among piano, trumpet, sax, tuba, drums, violin, bass, banjo and even a secondary tambourine handed to an unprepared member of the audience.
Such Harlem jazz flourished because of its freshness and acknowledged underground appeal – syncopation and suggestiveness that Dad would have banned from the living room, double entendres, sexual overtones not to mention undertones (“Honeysuckle Rose” wasn’t the flower Dad thought). The decadence that has now become virtually mainstream was a singular attraction of the black culture. Their top performers knew and exploited for money and fame that guilty white pleasure in loose bodices, sinuous movement and illegal partying.
Today is the era of “The Voice” and “American Idol” – not to mention Lady Gaga and Beyonce – where extra vocal flourishes are expected even to the detriment of tune, where insider winks and sexual motifs are common. Modern performers must ponder how to celebrate and not demean the extraordinary groundbreaking of the Harlem Renaissance, not pretend it needs some goosing.
But then everyone relaxes – and that turns out to be the genius of this show for the last part of the first act and the evocative second act. How nice for a production to respect its intimate cabaret space and get better as it goes along, letting the natural power of the words, humor and melodies subdue the salesmanship.
The show and its director now become insightful – particularly when they let Waller and his collaborators speak more in their own voices than an imitated voice. The original artists were quite pointed in knowing how the dominating culture used them and expected them to dress, walk and behave. They knew how to poke fun and subtly hint at a larger meaning, while taking pride in their own “lower class.”
Kenney M. Green, who in bulk and delivery deliberately emulates the portly Waller, wickedly mocks high society in “Lounging at the Waldorf” (“Well ain’t it swell doing swell with the swells in the swellest hotel of them all”).
But later comes the dramatic, musical and social highlight, played cunningly as almost an aria from the soul as the ensemble halts the revelry for “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.” The production consistently delivers wit from the interplay, sex with a point of humor and the overwhelming lyricism within songs that are already so famous we hum them on the way in. Now we can feel them freshly on the way out.
The show also allows each of these artists’ several turns in the spotlight, most active among them the powerful Bethany Thomas. She gets to belt high and groan low like Satchmo, teasing out her vocal range in many numbers.
Always a smart group singer and effective tap dancer, Christopher James Culberson rises into total command performer when he smokes with glee and dances like a cobra in a standout five minutes of reefer madness — “The Viper’s Drag” (and isn’t it interesting that this ode to marijuana, so daring in its time, seems now a routine comment).
As if piano, trumpet and guttural asides were not enough, Green jumps from table to table to great laughter and innuendo in “Your Feet’s Too Big.” After shaking her booty to amusing payoff, Erin Willis gets to shake us with pathos with a touching “Mean to Me.” Not to be outdone, Britney Coleman abandons her comic demeanor to move the crowd with her rendition of “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.”
Not only does the joint become jumpin’. It makes us feel things. “Ain’t Misbehavin’” will stick with you – because every lyric has a surprise, every melody has something to remember and every performer will bowl you over.
Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here.