Review: “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at Westchester Broadway Theatre

Published: Wednesday, February 6, 2019 By: John P. McCarthy Source: ON STAGE BLog

The production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” that opened Thursday night at Westchester Broadway Theatre is the real McCoy, a fact that will delight devotees of Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller and his music—the Harlem-style swing that bridged Ragtime and mid-century jazz idioms. It will also tickle anybody with a scintilla of rhythm. Those lacking that innate quality should sit back and let the syncopated melodies and mischievous wordplay get their toes and fingers tapping.

The bona fides of this joyful revival derive from two primary sources, not counting Waller and his chief collaborator, lyricist Andy Razaf. The first is director Richard Maltby, Jr., who happens to be the same individual who created and directed the original show, which won the 1978 Tony for Best Musical. The second is musical director William Foster McDaniel, who tickles the ivories of the upright piano located stage left and who has been the musical director of over fifty productions of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” including one that ran at WBT shortly after the original premiered on the Great White Way. The authenticity is augmented by a terrific five-person cast and a first-class combo (drums, bass, trumpet, trombone and reeds) perched on a movable riser upstage and led by McDaniel. Both contingents emit sounds that ring true and of which, one feels, Fats himself would approve.   

If the songs in Act One tend to be a little too brassy and Dixieland for my taste, it would be a mistake to give up on this giddy revue. Stick around for the cooler and more soulful—generally less shrill—music of Act Two. On press night audio glitches detracted from the first half, making it difficult to decipher lyrics already in danger of being drowned out by the band. It was as though the mics and sound components couldn’t handle how amped-up the musicians and singers were. Evidently the technical problems and adrenaline issues were ironed out during intermission because the second stanza felt more under control and more affecting.

Martine Allard proves she’s the complete package, singing and japing with equal clarity and ease throughout the evening in the role of Nell. Amy Jo Phillips convincingly gurgles the early ditty “Squeeze Me” and then takes advantage of her opportunity to showcase her vocal chops, as when she and her castmates offer a deeply moving version of “Black and Blue.” Ron Lucas is captivatingly sinister in his big number “The Viper’s Drag,” a louche ode to pot-smoking; and Anita Welch entices in her solo, “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” Tony Perry displays his comedic skills in the hare-brained gem “Your Feet’s Too Big” and when he and Ms. Allard sing “Honeysuckle Rose” with an earthy gusto that borders on the salacious.

Make no mistake, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” contains fairly ribald, innuendo-laden material that many will deem unsuitable for children and teenagers. Moreover, the gender roles and hyper-sexualized depiction of women are problematic when judged by present-day standards. Nothing in the show can be completely detached from race, a lesson gleaned from Waller’s work and life story. Yet rather than try to tackle such complex and sensitive subject matter in a theater review, perhaps it’s enough to point out that “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a celebration of an African-American artist and the musical form he pioneered during a specific time period and in a particular place. It endures because it has some universal appeal—but that allure would evaporate if the conditions, good and bad, under which the art arose were forgotten or ignored.  

Intended as an homage to the contributions made by one African-American composer, it’s appropriate that this production coincides with Black History Month. And it was a privilege to be in the audience on press night when, before the curtain rose, director Maltby was presented with a Special Pioneer Award from AUDELCO (Audience Development Committee, Inc.), the New York-based organization devoted to recognizing Black Theatre and artists.

How often do you get to see a revival of a Tony-winning musical that has been directed by the man who created and directed the original production forty-one years earlier? That alone is worth the price of admission. Add the efforts of a group of talented singers, musicians and craftspeople to the exuberantly entertaining songs of Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller and you have something very special indeed.