Review: ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Signature Theatre

Outside, the Polar Vortex reigned. Inside, the jazz was hot and smoky and funny and sexy. Ain’t Misbehavin’, celebrating the work of Fats Waller, brought his music and the feel of his life and times to an enthusiastic opening night audience at Arlington’s Signature Theatre.

Kevin McAllister and Nova Y. Payton in Ain't Misbehavin' at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Kevin McAllister and Nova Y. Payton in Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Originally created in 1978 by Richard Maltby, Murray Horowitz (who attended the opening night performance at Signature), and Luther Henderson, Ain’t Misbehavin’ is purely a revue. There’s no book, no plot, no attempt at a biography of Waller, just one brilliant tune after another, sung here by the wonderfully talented cast of Iyona Blake, Kevin McAllister, Solomon Parker III, Nova Y. Payton, and Korinn Walfall, supported by music director Mark G. Meadows on piano and a six-piece band.

This is a point in a review where one might normally cite the highlights of a performance.  That’s hard, because there isn’t a moment or number in the production that isn’t a highlight. That’s true of songs that have become standards, like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” itself and “Honeysuckle Rose” (McAllister and Payton), in which McAllister displays a silky smooth transition from his upper to his lower register and back. It’s equally true of more obscure tunes, like “Cash for Your Trash” (Payton), an ode to wartime recycling, and “When the Nylons Bloom Again,” which Blake does as a send-up of a diva whose operetta-like vocal style has not quite kept up with the times.

Still, some numbers deserve a special shoutout. “The Viper’s Drag” is not only an alternately vigorous and languorous salute to a marijuana high, but an occasion for a spectacular solo dance turn by Parker. In “Mean to Me,” Payton portrays a wide emotional range, including a moment of anger rarely seen in more consistently sorrowful renditions of the number. Walfall’s signature moment is probably “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” Best of all, the quietly profound, close harmony quintet arrangement of “Black and Blue” is a moment to reflect on the pain behind the gaiety.

Opportunities for comedy – and Waller was a virtuoso comic as well as a musician – are not neglected. In inebriated fashion, McAllister complains of a woman that “Your Feet’s Too Big,” and he and Parker lead audience participation in “Fat and Greasy.” Blake and Payton describe how to keep a man happy in “Find Out What They Like” (compare and contrast “Marry the Man Today” from Guys and Dolls).

Attributed to the great Luther Henderson, as well as Jeffrey Gutcheon and William Elliott, the arrangements of the musical numbers are themselves a marvel, as lines and portions of songs are traded back and forth seamlessly among members of the ensemble. This is notable especially in the full group numbers, like “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” and “The Joint is Jumpin’” (it was).

Even aside from dance-centric numbers like “The Viper’s Drag” and “The Jitterbug Waltz” (Blake and McAllister), this is a show that moves. Director Joe Calarco and choreographer Jared Grimes miss no opportunities to keep performers both in motion and in character as they sing, including frequent bantering interaction – for example, some jealous cattiness – between characters in a sequence. This is a revue, but it is never in danger of becoming a stand and sing concert piece.

L-R: Solomon Parker III, Iyona Blake, Nova Y. Payton, Korinn Walfall, and Kevin McAllister in Ain't Misbehavin' at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.
L-R: Solomon Parker III, Iyona Blake, Nova Y. Payton, Korinn Walfall, and Kevin McAllister in Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Calarco and scenic designer Paige Hathaway have configured the theater to create a ’30s night club feeling, with cocktail tables close to the stage, a mural over the stage suggesting the Harlem of that era, and theater-style light bulbs not only around the stage but the sides of the auditorium as well. Sherrice Mojgani’s lighting is subtly specific, individually illuminating each performer at the right time without calling undue attention to itself. The costumes (Sarita P. Fellows) are riotously colorful; a few that made a particular impression on me were Blake’s black and gold piece for “When Nylons Bloom Again,” McAllister’s pure white overcoat in “Lounging at the Waldorf,” and Payton’s iridescent dress in most of the second half.

Great music, singers with vocal technique to burn, well-conceived and active movement, and a flawless technical production combine to create an evening to remember.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ plays through March 10, 2019, at Signature Theater, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA. For tickets, call 703-820-9771 or go online.

Sound Design, Ryan Hickey; Wig and Hair Design, Tommy Kurzman

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