The latest The Elden Street Players’ production, Ain’t Misbehavin’, transports the audience back the 1920’s and 30’s jazz cabarets and nightclubs of Harlem where the ‘everything is in full swing/in fact the joint is jumpin’.
Executive Producer Jeff Boatright and Producer Michelle Bell’s production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ offers the right combination of sultry ballads, energetic ensemble numbers, and colorful and show stopping costumes to help conjure up Harlem nightlife filled with vaudevillian humor and playful sensuality.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1978’s Tony Award-winning Best Musical) is a musical revue -and as Director/performer Rikki Howe explains in a previewe video (watch it below) – this production is an autobiographical sketch of Fats Waller’s life, written by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., with music by Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller, and lyrics by various writers.
Waller rose to international fame during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and 30’s, an era of cultural awareness and ethnic pride. It was a time when nightclubs like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom were the playgrounds of high society swells and Harlem dives were both filled with piano players. Although not quite a biography, Ain’t Misbehavin’ evokes the humor and energy of the songs Waller made famous in a career that ranged from Harlem joints to downtown Tin Pan Alley to Hollywood and concert stages in the U.S., Canada and Europe. It was quite interesting that
As soon I walked into the theatre, I was amazed at Set Designer James Villarrubia’s ability to transform a small stage into an orchestra pit for a seven piece band, a nightclub complete with stage and a brownstone neighborhood in Harlem.
Director, choreographer, actress, singer and dancer Richelle ‘Rikki’ Howie’s rendition of “Yacht Club Swing” stole the show in the first act. Her portal of cabaret singer dressed in a feminized white sailor uniform who’s short on talent but full of sexually suggestive enthusiasm tickled the audience’s funny bone. “Honeysuckle Rose” was sensuous comedic number filled with double entendre which reached its climax when Christopher Prince (WATCH Award nominee) and Jade Jones embraced and lovingly sang together in duet. In second act Patrick Doneghy set the stage with “The Viper’s Drag” when he was “dreamin’ ’bout a reefer, five feet long.” Dressed in a white sleeveless t-shirt while basking in the greenish smoky hue, Doneghy leads the cast in intoxicating Bob Fosse like song and dance number. Jade Jones easily played the comedian and the vamp in “Cash for your Trash.”But it is her role as the sorrowful songstress in “Mean to Me” where her voice’s unique ability shined and invoked an empathic response from the audience. All eyes were on versatile Michele Harmon when she transformed herself from a voluptuous party girl who belts out tunes into a virtuoso with classy voice – when she sang “When the Nylons Bloom Again.”
I was enraptured and captivated by Mary Ayala Bush and WATCH Award winner Costume Designer Judy Whelihan use of color and style to complement and convey emotions and atmosphere. The cast were dressed elegantly in similar colors which made each production number visual captivating. During “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” and “Lounging at the Waldorf,”the costume color palette of ivory was used to convey the refinement of the downtown high society venues in Manhattan. The show’s music director and pianist WATCH Award winner John-Michael d’Haviland and his jazz musicians added to the nightclub atmosphere by enthusiastically joining in on some choruses and by accompanying the actual musical recording artfully introduced by Sound Designer Stan Harris. John-Michael d’Haviland and drummer Jim Hoffmann enthusiastically threw stylistic flourishes into every song.
Toward the end of the evening, the haunting voices of Prince, Harmon, Jones, Doneghy and Howie, the bluesy sound of the band and the staging that allowed each performer to shine – coalesced to mesmerize the audience in the hypnotic racial lament, “Black and Blue.” Kudos to John-Michael d’Haviland and drummer Jim Hoffmann, who enthusiastically threw stylistic flourishes into every song.
For two hours, I really felt like I was in 1930’s Harem. I was disappointed when the show ended and I had to come back to the reality.
ESP’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a ‘Must See’ theatrical event. So don’t forget to ‘Grab a jug an’ cut the rug, because that joint was really jumpin.’’
Watch the preview video.
Running time: Two hours including one 15 minute intermission.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ plays through August 20th at The Elden Street Players’ Industrial Strength Theatre, in Herndon, VA. For tickets, purchase them online, or call the box office (703) 481-5930.