A faded yellow light illuminates the keyboards of a piano at center stage as an old, scratchy recording of Fats Waller sounds. So begins Ain't Misbehavin': Waller's voice, or his ghost, materializing before us. And before he and his notes have faded away, musical director Angie Benson has discreetly slipped onstage and onto the bench and, with her back to us, into the persona of a nightclub pianist as she starts to play. It's a remarkable transition, one that admits us to a different era.
Unlike traditional musical theater, Ain't Misbehavin' has little dialogue and no story line. The songs and the performances evoke the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s — the people, the clubs, the nights, including the rent parties that helped make ends meet: The roof is rockin/The neighbors knockin.
It also transmits one huge personality and its legacy. Waller — who died in 1943, at age 39 — was known for his love of life and its pleasures. He made his passion audible in his innovative stride piano: a rhythmic jazz style rooted partly in ragtime but also highly improvisational. The force of the man and his music comes through in this spirited Spinning Tree Theatre show, nimbly directed and choreographed at Off Broadway Theatre by Michael Grayman and Andy Parkhurst.
The original 1978 production (created by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz) takes its name from the famous Waller song "Ain't Misbehavin' " (Ain't misbehavin', I'm savin' my love for you) and includes others, while also incorporating the lyrics (and some of the music) of other songwriters. The show won a Tony Award for Best Musical, the first musical revue to do so. And when it was re-created on Broadway 10 years later, it was nominated again.
It's easy to see why. The show is a virtual party, with blocking that eats up the stage and here makes full use of the Off Broadway space, diverting our attention from singers to band to singers to set. This is live eye candy, allowing us to feast on the action, the color and the sound.
Five distinctly talented and magnetic singers — Eboni Fondren, Jennie Greenberry, Matthew King, Ron Lackey and Linnaia McKenzie — make up an ensemble even greater than its parts. They exhibit both individual ability and strength as a group, particularly in the striking harmonies of "Black and Blue."
The band stands out equally. As the music keeps going, slow or fast, never really stopping, the musicians — Benson, percussionist Julian Goff, bassist Brian Wilson — pull us in and hold us. The show's tempo fluidly segues in seconds from company numbers to solos and duos and trios and back, altering mood and focus and energy. One song ends and the next begins, creating continual movement — no pauses, little time for applause. The show zips through 30-some numbers, each one unlike the next.
The elegant, sexy Greenberry runs her smooth voice up and down the scale like fingers on the back of your neck. A captivating McKenzie is physically small but a fusion of movement and ability. A regular presence in KC's jazz scene, Fondren adds depth and glamour with her rich voice and amusing sass. But the women don't overshadow the men. King's vocal chops add to a natural and physically expressive stage presence. And as Waller himself, Lackey lends his own considerable charm and talent.
In "The Viper's Drag," performed with the company, King dreams of a 5-foot reefer, and we imagine it, too. Then, he and Fondren are all attitude in "That Ain't Right." Lackey adds humor with "Your Feet's Too Big" and style with Greenberry in "Lounging at the Waldorf" (which will make you want to wear a hat). Whether about love ("Honeysuckle Rose," "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now"), war ("When the Nylons Bloom Again," "Cash for Your Trash"), sex ("Find Out What They Like"), good times ("The Joint Is Jumpin'") or painful times ("Mean to Me'), these singers inhabit each song and own the material.
The set, designed by Michael Benson (with assistance from his students at the University of Central Missouri), subtly evokes a club, with a twin set of stairs ascending to a platform and hugging the band between them. Paul Tilson's effective lighting design creates environment and alters mood. And the costumes, designed by Shannon Smith-Regnier, are period-appropriate and often stunning.
By the second act, I was in one of those Harlem nightclubs, and by the end of the show I was ready to dance onto the stage myself. It's a sin to tell a lie, we hear, and I truly wanted the party to go on and on. Too bad Off Broadway's show doesn't run for weeks or months as it would in New York. But we still have a couple of weeks for the sort of show that could draw us in, again and again.