"Ain't Misbehavin' "

Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2019 By: Erin Joanna Augis Source: THE CUE

Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Westchester Broadway Theater provides for an entertaining winter evening, with its warm and comedic melodies offering reminiscences of the golden era of jazz in the Harlem Renaissance. The audience was treated to the musical talents of M. Martine Allard (Nell), Ron Lucas (Andre), Tony Perry (Ken), Amy Jo Phillips (Armelia), and Anita Welch (Charlaine) whose credits range from Broadway to international and regional theater, as well as film and television. Richard Maltby, Jr., who conceived the show with Murray Horowitz and was its original Broadway director in 1978 in addition to being this production’s director, was on hand to receive a prestigious AUDELCO award for honoring excellence in African American theatre, bestowed on him by associate director A. Curtis Farrow. Mr. Maltby remarked that it was “humbling from the first day” to work with such accomplished African American performers, and that it had been a great honor to write about artists of the Harlem Renaissance period, who “fought their way to recognition with the only weapon they had – to be so, so, incredibly good at what they did.”

Maltby and Horowitz have written Ain’t Misbehavin’ specifically to showcase the talents of Fats Waller and to pay homage to the stylings  of other artists of the era who also performed his work. As such, the show is truly a musical revue – with one number that follows another – and so for the most part the audience is left to educate themselves on the history and context of the songs. Audience members with a rudimentary knowledge of the Golden Age of the Cotton Club can imagine the dancehalls of the Harlem community at the time, replete with swing music, elegantly dressed guests, liqueurs, cigars, cigarettes, and yes, marijuana.

The choreography itself – originally conceived by Arthur Faria – is an excellent paean to African American dance of the 20’s and 30’s and the roots of American jazz dance. But it appeared that the ensemble had varying dance backgrounds, so certain details became lost as some performers scaled back their movements to match others who were not fully executing the steps. An outstanding feature of each ensemble number was the musicality with which the five performers masterfully sang through harmonies and counterpoint melodies, displaying their virtuosity as singers. The performers set the standard in this regard early in the show, with “’T Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I do, and then with “The Joint is Jumpin,’” and by the end of Act Two, they received whoops and cheers from the audience with their deeply moving rendering of “Black and Blue,” and their highly detailed, swift, and rhapsodic version of “Honeysuckle Band” where each member of the ensemble personifies a musical instrument like a trumpet, sax, or drum.

The five-piece orchestra received rapturous applause as well, when after several numbers behind the scrim, they emerged seated at art-deco stands in the style of a 1930’s dance hall orchestra, the audience clearly thrilled with the musicianship and period stylings of the trombonist, drummer, bassist, saxophonist/clarinetist, and trumpet player. The most-loved instrumentalist, however, was William Foster McDaniel, the music director and keyboardist, who dressed in the style of a dance hall pianist with a white shirt, blousy sleeves, and a bowler hat, sat at an old upright piano with his back to the audience, and accompanied each number with flair and prowess.  He did not even flinch as Nell, Charlaine, and Armelia alternately leaned on his piano, or scootched him over to flirt with him, tease him, or insist on his protection from a female rival. When he turned and showed his face for his bow, the audience applauded delightedly and with great appreciation. 

The most exquisite part of the production came halfway through the second act, in a series of solos, where each of the five ensemble singers was able to highlight their own voices and abilities to specifically shape the character of particular songs. Throughout most of Act One, Amy Jo Phillips sang numbers like Squeeze Me that required the extra-feminine falsetto prized for some female performers in the twenties.  But when Ms. Phillips was featured in “That Ain’t Right,” she thrilled the audience with the power of her lower register, as she sang with punch, powerful sustains, and growls in just the right places, accenting the righteous indignation of the lyrics. Ron Lucas threw the audience into ecstasies with his sexy, suspense-filled, hash-laden, “Viper’s Drag,” a tribute to some high-quality pot, and the warm haze of being out at night and high as a kite. As he ascended from beneath the stage on a platform in smoky green light, he sucked on a joint as only a mature, seasoned man in a fedora could, seducing the audience as he shimmied his feet slowly along the stage, circling his wrists and hands to waft the smoke back toward him, his torso and shoulders defiantly slanted to one side. He seemed almost oblivious to the audience until he stepped over dinner plates to offer his joint languidly to a woman at a table on stage left, only to snatch it back with a sharp “No!” –- the vibrant unpredictability of a man who is totally stoned. He glided over to stage right, offering his joint again, this time slowly pulling it back and calmly chastising the gentleman diner, “I think you’ve already had enough.” Mr. Lucas had the audience in the palm of his hand. After “Viper’s Drag,”

M. Martine Allard enveloped viewers in her soulful and sad “Mean to Me” as she stood still in a beautiful blue stole and reminded everyone of the bittersweet mix of rejection and addiction that bad love often brings – her elegant phrasings evoking grief and soothing at the same time. Next, Tony Perry had the audience doubling over in teary-laughter with “Your Feets Too Big” – chastising the woman he just can’t love for her enormous feet, slamming his whiskey glass on the table in disgust, and rolling Fats Waller’s famous insults off his tongue – like “Your pedal extremities are colossal; to me you look just like a fossil” in his delicious baritone. Finally, Anita Welch’s rapturous “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” exhibited her clear, strong tone and impressive range – from a classic high soprano to a powerful sob and belt – reminding the audience of the paradoxical blend of sensuous anticipation and strong devotion one feels when having fallen deeply in love. 

Alongside the beautiful artistry and warmth of the singers and instrumentalists, perhaps the greatest contribution of Westchester Broadway Theater’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ is that it has re-introduced such an important part of American social and cultural history back into the Westchester community and into New York’s musical comedy lexicon. Ain’t Misbehavin’ is an American story that doesn’t shy away from the darkness of racial discrimination, but that also shines a light on the resilience, defiance, humor, and optimism of African American artists who blessed us all with the richness of their lives and endeavors.

Certainly, Ain’t Misbehavin’ can open every American’s spirit to learning more about the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance and its meaning for today, leading to greater and greater understanding among all of us. In the famous words of the singular comedian, composer, and performer Fats Waller himself, “One never know…do one?”