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Theater Fri Feb 07 2014

Porchlight Presents Rousing Revival of Fats Waller's Ain't Misbehavin'

Porchlight_cast-piano.jpgPorchlight Music Theatre's contribution to Black History Month is a rousing revival of Ain't Misbehavin', a musical revue and tribute to the music of Thomas "Fats" Waller and the Harlem Renaissance. Fats himself would be proud of this production, performed at Stage 773 with an excellent live band led by über-pianist Austin Cook. The show, with book by Murry Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr., was first performed in 1978 on Broadway.

Waller was an influential jazz pianist, composer and entertainer who wrote more than 400 original songs. Thirty of his songs and those he covered are showcased in this lively production set at an after-hours party in a Harlem club in 1944, the era when the white elite went to the Harlem clubs to take in black entertainment. At the opening and close, we hear Waller's voice on a radio broadcast.

Porchlight_Rush-Wass.jpgThe five performers--singers and dancers--are talented and charismatic. Robin Da Silva, who plays the "big mama" role that Nell Carter took on Broadway, uses her terrific pipes in numbers such as "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Mean to Me." Lorenzo Rush, Jr., who sometimes seems to be channeling Waller, is a large man who uses his body fluidly, dancing and prancing in duos, trios and cutting up in a comic solo in "Your Feet's Too Big" and in "The Joint is Jumpin'." In "The Viper's Drag," Donterrio Johnson, a graceful, jazzy dancer, lights up and tells us about the evils of "reefers." The other two female performers are Lina Wass who has a dynamic diva's voice and Sharriese Hamilton as the pretty ingénue. Da Silva and Wass perform a fantastic, slightly suggestive duet about how to keep your man: "Find Out What They Like (and How They Like It)."

Although set on a smallish stage, director Brenda Didier moves the action around to make good use of every inch; she's also the clever choreographer. Musical direction by Jaret Landon is spot on for the period sounds. The band is arranged on raised areas left and right. Michael Weatherspoon at the drum kit and Chris Thigpen on upright bass provide a solid rhythm section on our left, while Rajim Halim on saxophones and Shaun Johnson on trumpet add the horn sound that early jazz was known for. Cook and his piano are on stage and occasionally move around. He's an energetic, passionate player and the piano all but vibrates as he plays Waller's stride piano style and pounds the pedals.

Some of the songs are clear tributes to the period. The three women help the war effort with "Cash for Your Trash" and then remind us of wartime stocking shortages in "When the Nylons Bloom Again." As it ends, Da Silva and Hamilton draw pencil seams on Wass' legs. (Yes, women really used to do that.) "Loungin' at the Waldorf" makes fun of the elite who populate that venue as guests, not the help.

The ensemble performs a sad, soulful version of "Black and Blue" and then moves into a final medley of Waller covers, including "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," "Two Sleepy People" and "I Can't Give You Anything but Love."

Bill Morey's excellent costume design creates the mood in a blend of fashion from the '20s, '30s and '40s. The men are dapper on three-piece suits with homburgs. Rush's costume at the opening of act two is a dark gray pinstripe suit with a red vest and spats. The three women open that act wearing shimmery dresses of purple, aqua and copper satin. Sparkly jewelry and shoes (including tap shoes for one number by Da Silva and Wass) add finishing touches.

Ain't Misbehavin' runs a little more than two hours with one intermission. You can see it until March 9 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets are $43.50 and can be purchased online or at the Stage 773 box office, 773-327-5252. For more information, see the Porchlight website.

Photos by Kelsey Jorissen.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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