‘Ain’t Misbehavin” at The Vagabond Players

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The joint was jumpin’ yesterday as The Vagabond Players wisely chose The Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr. Tony Award-winning musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ filled to open their 99th Anniversary Season with songs by the ingeneous Fats Waller.

Before I hurl some laurels on the cast and musicians I need to let you know that for yesterday’s matinee, which I attended, the role of Charlaine was played by Amber Hooper and a new pianist – Winston Philip – came in to play with the band. It was a little rough in the beginning of the show and there were some pitch problems in the first act, but there were buckets of joy and love and heat permeating from that stage, and as the show went on, especially in the second act, it was musical heaven!

And the most important thing that was evident from the get go -an actual recording of the real Fats Waller — was that everyone on that stage — musician and cast member alike – was going to have a great time working together and singin’ and swingin’ to the beat of those great immortal songs that make up this fabulous revue.

I am going to make a public confession right here and now: I adore Director Rikki Howie Lacewell, not only as a performer, but also as a director, and now as a costume designer and choreographer. She has created some of them most colorful and stunning hats and dresses I have seen on the stage and each one is fulled with the colors of the rainbow – eye candy for all to see- and for the cast to wear.  There’s enough glitz and glitter in those beautiful creations to fill up a jewelry store, and enough class to stroll through Harlem in the 1930s during the height of its Renaissance. And she had her energy-filled cast slow-dancing and kickin’ up their heels – always movin’ to the beat or the mood or the ambiance of the song and msuic, and the story they were singin’ and tellin’.

The cast of Vagabond Players' Ain't Misbehavin' (from left to right) Amber Hooper, Melissa Broy Fortson, Timoth David Copney, Brenda D. Parker, Kevin Sockwell, Michelle Bruno, and Summer Hill.
From left to right: Amber Hooper, Melissa Broy Fortson, Timoth David Copney, Brenda D. Parker, Kevin Sockwell, Michelle Bruno, and Summer Hill (who was not in the performance I am reviewing here). Photo by Tom Lauer.

And as a director she understands each and every lyric and has her cast members sell every funny and punny and suggestive word – and they all become ‘lyric salesmen and saleswomen.’ Every song has a story and you can’t help but to listen and follow carefully as each story unfolds in front of you. And even though I know every lyric and tune from this show, there were times I felt like I was hearing these songs for the first time. Director Lacewell has transferred her abundance of joy and fun and respect for the show and Waller’s work to her performers, musicians, and -most important – to the audience.

And kudos to Musical Director LeVar Betts and his hot-playin’ band: Winston Philip and Emily Sergo on keyboards, Samuel Glover on drums, and Mike Pugh on bass. In such an intimate performing space they created a miracle: they never once overwhelmed the singers and never once drowned them out. And man can they play! Bravo!!

And to not give it all away, let me name some of my favorite performances and personal highlights:

Kevin Sockwell (Ken) and Timoth David Copney (Andre). Photo by Tom Lauer.

Timoth David Copney (Andre) and Kevin Sockwell (Ken). Photo by Tom Lauer.

I saw a lot of Sammy Davis Jr, in Timoth Daniel Copney’s (Andre) energy and dancing and personality on the stage. He is an entertainer’s entertainer. He can do it all – dance, sing, and grab an audience in the palm of his hands – and when he is joined by Kevin Sockwell  (with the gorgeous baritone and killer smile)- in “Ladies Who Sing With the Band,” and when they both get down and greasy, (where they got the audience to shout out ‘Fat and Greasy’ along with them), they play off each other like Hines Brothers. Together in these joint-performances they are pure magic!

And I can’t forget Melissa Broy Fortson’s comic touches that added to the fun of “Fat and Greasy.” This is one funny lady!

And I loved Brenda Parker’s intense and spine-tingling rendition of “Mean to Me.” It was straight from the heart and beautiful at the same time. She was so convincing that I felt like she was singing directly to me and I wanted to go right up to her and apologize after the show for being so mean to her.

And what can I say about Kevin Sockwell’s hysterical “You’re Feet’s Too Big.” Let’s just say his performance had a lot of ‘sole.’

Amber Hooper performed a fun “Keeping Out of Mischief Now” (although you knew she was not going to ever fulfill that promise), and Michelle Harmon Bruno and Copney lit up the stage with their duet “That Ain’t Right.”

And then there’s the glorious harmonies during “Black and Blue.” Filled with intensity and hopelessness and yearning – the cast hit its stride and their vocal talents were on full display.

If you ain’t feelin’ well  and life’s got you down, run to Vagabond Players’ Ain’t Misbehavin’.  It will cure the blues and blahs and get your feet tappin’ (whatever size they are), your fingers snappin’, and will fill your heart with love and joy. There’s nothin’ like payin’ a visit to a sizzlin’ and hoppin’ joint that’s really jumpin’!

Running Time: Approximately two hours, plus a 15-minute intermission.

Ain’t Misbehavin plays through November 23, 2014 at The Vagabond Players— 806 South Broadway, in Baltimore, MD (in Fells Point). For tickets call the box office at (410) 563-9135, or purchase them online.

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