VERSAILLES -- It’s not every day an audience gets to see a familiar show like the Fats Waller musical revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ in a reworked, reinvented format, but that is exactly what Woodford Theatre has given the region with its production which opened Friday night.
Whereas the show usually unfolds as a staged concert of Harlem nightclub songs by or associated with the legendary pianist/songwriter Fats Waller, director Cathy Rawlings has expanded the setting, with historical accuracy, to a speakeasy full of revelers, more than doubling the cast of five singers with the addition of an excellent dance troupe choreographed by William Parris. All the singers and dancers have been assigned names of great performers of the period, good for hours of YouTube research and entertainment by enterprising audience members at home later. The colorful costumes by Missy Johnston add to the authenticity of the period and place, right down to the jewel-toned zoot suits. In short, time-traveling back to a Harlem speakeasy is a brilliantly effective frame for this show.
The five singers do a great job of entertaining the audience. The two men Damon Greene and Simon Peter Rawlings, as songwriters Fats Waller and Andy Razaf respectively, create outlandish, appealing characters. Two of the best numbers in this production are their featured comic solos: Rawlings’ super-hip reefer pusher in The Viper’s Drag and Greene’s teasing mockery in Your Feet’s Too Big. I’d be hard-pressed to say which of these songs is more hilarious. Maybe their duet Fat and Greasy should be awarded that distinction.
The three women also bring verve to their songs, especially Sylvia Howard, who plays Edith Hatchett as a blend of sexy and daffy, shining in such numbers as Squeeze Me and the second-act opener, Spreadin’ Rhythm Around. Rae’Shawna Campbell, as Anita Priscilla Rutherford, delivers a lovely Mean To Me, and Courtney Campbell, as Vivian Brown, is fetching in Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.
The ladies team together marvelously for a lesson on how to keep your man in Find Out What They Like, one of the show’s brightest highlights. All five singers bring chills in the eleventh-hour song, the somber and sobering Black and Blue.
All five singers approach the music with stylistic accuracy and vocal flair, and Paul Manning’s sound design is well-conceived and well-executed. However, all five singers depend too much on the amplification to manufacture vocal energy for them, so that the words are often garbled or lost from under-enunciation, and the pitches are often under-energized resulting in flat singing. However, this is not opera, so these flaws do not detract too much from the overall enjoyment of the show, although in its original incarnation this music would not have been amplified, so the singers would have had to actually project and articulate, as we can hear from their old recordings.
The dance ensemble adds immeasurably to this show. Their movement is both naturalistic and stylized, and their interaction with each other and the singers provides many interesting layers I’ve never seen in this show before. A huge bravo to all of them: Emisha Coulter, Alicia Davila, Jarshayla Kavanaugh, Rich Marie Rosa, Michael Scearce, Jr., Desmond Suter, Erica Tilford, and Jordan Turley.
The onstage band, led by trumpeter and music arranger Sam Flowers, also acquits itself with distinction. Comprised of well-known jazz talent from the region, the band prominently features pianist Raleigh Dailey whose elegant jazz stylings would certainly give Waller a run for his money if the fat man were still alive today. Thanks to this show, he is revived and holding forth splendidly at the speakeasy that has overrun the whole auditorium at Woodford Theatre.