Cathy Rawlings faced a unique challenge when directing the latest production at The Woodford Theatre.
The rights to the show she'd been tapped to direct, Smokey Joe's Cafe, were no longer available because of a national tour buyout. So she and Trish Clark, the theater's artistic and executive director, scrambled to find a new show.
They settled on Ain't Misbehavin', the 1978 musical revue celebrating the work of legendary jazz composer, singer, and all around entertainer Thomas "Fats" Waller. The show features an ensemble cast of five singers who take the audience on a musical tour of Waller's career, including iconic hits of the early 20th century like Ain't Misbehavin', Honeysuckle Rose, The Joint is Jumpin' and Black and Blue.
Even though Rawlings had suggested the show herself, she was a little disappointed when Clark gave it the green light.
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"Ain't Misbehavin' is a classic but I felt the show was overdone," Rawlings wrote in her director's notes.
"I began to wonder what I could do to breathe some life into the show. What could be done to make it different, make it exciting, refreshing and appealing to a seasoned audience?"
Rawlings buried herself in research about Waller's life and career, his colleagues, the Harlem Renaissance and the unique cultural aspects of a nation in a Depression, sandwiched between two world wars.
Her research led her to a revelation: the show could serve as more than a surface celebration; it could be an invitation to go deeper into the cultural and historical context of Waller's life and work.
Rawlings issues this invitation to the audience in a few key ways.
First, in lieu of the glitzy club-like atmosphere of most Ain't Misbehavin' sets, Rawlings worked with designer Todd Pickett on creating a set that converts from an unassuming warehouse space into a speakeasy. Plenty of Waller's entertainment career, and many of the social gatherings in Harlem at the time, did not take place in ritzy clubs, but in ordinary-looking locales that doubled as ad-hoc night clubs. (It's a feel some urban dwellers, particularly in Brooklyn, are trying to recreate today with speakeasy parties.)
"I'm attempting to just capture the mood and the feel of the period, you know, Prohibition, the speakeasy," says Rawlings, who also aims to capture the broader spirit of the Harlem Renaissance and its place in American history."
To add even more authenticity to the show, Rawlings added eight dancers to the cast, who each embody a different historical figure from the time period, particularly dancers from the legendary Cotton Club.
She also significantly changed the premise of how the songs are delivered.
"In most productions, people just sing those songs beautifully," Rawlings says, emphasizing that the cast is comprised largely of singers who do not necessarily identify as actors. As the show has extremely little dialogue, the ensemble generally sings in variety show style in most productions.
But Rawlings directed her singers to communicate with one another's characters on stage rather than directly addressing the audience.
"I thought, how would it be if we delivered those songs as if they were coming from Andy or Fats or one of the wives?," Rawlings says. "What would that be like if we could convey that kind of personal feeling?"
"There's a big difference between singing a song and delivering a song," Rawlings says, "and these people deliver."
The show also features a documentary video component about Fats Waller from 7:30 p.m. to the show's curtain at 8 p.m. so that patrons arriving early can get even more insights into Waller's life and time period.
Rawlings hopes that her attempts to deepen the relationship between Waller's music and the context it was written in will transport audiences to a unique period of American history, giving them a glimpse of what's beneath all those catchy and enduring tunes.
"I'm a little nervous about people who have seen Ain't Misbehavin' who may come and say 'What? What is this?'" Rawlings says. "But I still think they will enjoy it. I just wanted to make it as real as possible, so that audience could actually experience that feeling. When they come to Woodford, I want them to feel like it's 1934."