Review: ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’: The FATS WALLER Musical Show’ at Howard University

Coming out of the Howard University Department of Theatre Arts production of Ain’t Misbehavin’: The FATS WALLER Musical Show, we checked googlemaps to be absolutely sure we hadn’t accidentally wandered into a show at a Broadway theater in Manhattan.

It’s that good.

Everything about this show is perfection. The amazing part is the ensemble of ten performers, so brightly polished they gleam, are all college students. Someday, we’ll be able to say we saw them before they became big bucks superstars – for now, the top ticket price is $20. An incredible bargain.

Director Marty Austin Lamar, Musical Director Douglas Bowles and Choregrapher Royce Zackery have, with these ten plus five professional musicians, created a magical evening. (Two of the show’s dances were choreographed by Royce Zachery and one by Dwayne Murray.)

If they could have staged it at a cabaret, with every member of the audience seated at a table with a martini or glass of scotch handy – it would have been beyond heavenly.

As the audience enters the Ira Aldridge Theater in a building on the stately Howard University campus, the first thing it sees is an image of Fats Waller projected on the stage curtain. When the curtain is eventually raised, the image lingers on a sheer mesh curtain just behind the velvet stage curtain before it, too, is lifted out of sight.

The set is a combination nightclub, with a small round table and chairs on either side of the stage, and radio studio. The studio features a raised stage where, off to the right side, William Knowles takes on a role Fats Waller relished 70 years ago, playing the upright piano non-stop throughout the show, and he expertly tickles the ivories with such joy!

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” was written by Fats Waller with friends Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf in the late 1920s. It was Waller’s most popular song. Other songs in the show, which debuted in 1978, were written by Waller and other African American musicians of the ‘20s and ‘30s.

These tunes ushered in the era of swing, jazz, and the Harlem Renaissance. While intended for audiences at the Cotton Club and Savoy Ballroom of Harlem, no doubt they were performed at the uptown Copacabana and the midtown Latin Quarter, too, before becoming popular across the American spectrum.

Behind the onstage piano soars an Art Deco image of iconic Manhattan skyscrapers of that era, seemingly in flight. High above the skyscrapers, on the frame surrounding them, are two signs that light up: “ON THE AIR” and “APPLAUSE.” To the left is a fully stocked bar and three bar stools. On the right, is the band stand.

The set was designed by Michael Stepowany, the university’s resident set designer and technical director for its Department of Theatre Arts. T.W. Starnes created the lighting and lighting effects. The sound of an old, crackling radio show briefly broadcasts Waller’s voice as the curtain lifts.

Onstage, a crowd of ten, dressed to the nines for a night on the town, joke about Girl Scout cookies before launching into a big ensemble song-and-dance of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” the first of the evening’s 33 fast-paced musical numbers.

In the band, directed by Bowles, Sanjay Arora is on Bass, NaVaughn Martin plays Tenor Sax/Soprano Sax, Jonathon Neal is on the Trumpet, Christopher Steele is the Trombonist and the Percussionist is Demetrius Whitsey.

The well-dressed ensemble of actors is wardrobed and wigged by Kendra Rai, a designer who has received two recent Helen Hayes Awards for her artistry. The costumes and marceled hairdos are evocative of the period, impeccably crafted and detailed – down to tie clips and boutonnieres for the men, and allow the actors to dance, flip and twist. The men’s suits are crisply tailored while the women’s fluid dresses are intricately detailed in soft jersies, bias cut satins and sparkly, sequin-encrusted fabrics.

On to the show.

The sole plot spirals around people out for a night of fun at a nightclub. The ten performers dive into an evening of songs that are often humorous, somewhat raunchy and rowdy, but exquisitely sung. Every one of them is a belter.

Each member of the ensemble – Bryan Archibald, Gregroy Banks, Neah Banks, Rukiya Henry-Fields, Emmanuel Elliot Key, Kalen Robinson, Nia Savoy, Alexia Thompson, Kevin Thorne II, and Kayla Wheeler – have heart-stoppingly beautiful voices and, impressively, appear to be well-versed in tap-dancing, ballet, acrobatics and over-the-top dance moves. They can bend into positions that hurt to watch.

Some of the songs like “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “This Joint is Jumpin’,” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” are ingrained in our cultural DNA. Others like “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Jitterbug Waltz,” the raunchy “Ladies Who Sing With the Band,” “Lounging at the Waldorf” and “The Viper’s Drag and the Reefer Song” could easily become favorites.

Each of the ten gets several opportunities to shine in the spotlight with voices full of emotion and color. They also perform in duets and other multiples.

The dances – jazz, jitterbug, swing time and more – range from romantic to laugh out loud comic. What stands out with all the dances is the troupe never misses a beat in executing intricate moves and, even when a performer drops a prop – like a baton – it is quickly swept up in the movement of the dance.

For comic relief, “Your Feet’s Too Big” is da bomb.

This is a must-see show!

Running time: One hour and 50 minutes, with a 10-minute intermission.

Ain’t Misbehavin’: The FATS WALLER Musical Show plays through March 11, 2017, at Howard University’s Department of Theatre Arts performing at the Ira Aldridge Theater – 2455 6th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets,buy them at the box office, or purchase them online.

Free parking is available on streets near the theater.

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Wendi Winters
Wendi Winters is a writer, reporter, columnist and photographer - and a former NYC public relations executive. A good portion of her career has been in public relations - backed by solid experience in fashion retailing, wholesaling, textiles, marketing, advertising, design and promotion. She owned her own successful fashion public relations/advertising/special events/runway show production firm for seven years. As a journalist, she was the first freelancer to bring a journalism award home to The Capital - and then earned two more awards. Since May 2013, Ms. Winters has been a full time staff member at Capital Gazette Communications. Prior to that, she freelanced for the company for twelve years. Including her three weekly columns, she writes more than 250 articles annually. Her writing byline has appeared in Details Magazine, What's Up? Annapolis Magazine, and numerous others. She's been a feature writer for Associated Press Special Features and for Copley News Service. For years, her fashion critic columns ran in the NYC weeklies Manhattan Spirit and Our Town. Since moving to this area in 1999, as a D.C./Baltimore-area theatre critic, her reviews appeared in Theatre Spotlight and The Review. Plus, she was a Helen Hayes Awards nominator for two terms. Mother of four, she continues to be active as a Girl Scout leader and a regional church youth advisor. You bet she can make a mean S'More!

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