Chicago Theater Review: AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ (Porchlight Music Theatre)

by Lawrence Bommer on February 5, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

FATS FOREVER

“One never knows, do one?” That’s the favorite catchphrase of Fats Waller (1904-1943), an irrepressible master of music. The 285-pound, cherubic-cheeked jokester genius is the powerhouse presence and driving dreamer behind Ain’t Misbehavin’, Lorenzo Rush, Jr. and Lina Wass in Porchlight Music Theatre’s 'Ain’t Misbehavin' at Stage 773Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr.’s still irresistible tribute revue from 1978. In this happy case, well, one do knows.

In little over two hours Porchlight Music Theatre’s rollicking, euphoric revival pays hopping homage to Waller’s stride-piano jazz treasures, such as the teasingly righteous title number and standards that became signature triumphs from the first note (the lyrics to Waller’s tunes are by Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf).

Picking a perfect cast as solo dynamos or a harmony-happy ensemble (with Austin Cook on piano conducting the cool-to-combustible five-person band), director Brenda Didier delivers a hard-hoofing, high-strutting, big-belting two-act delight for Porchlight and all of its patrons.

Robin DaSilva, Lorenzo Rush, Jr., Lina Wass, Donterrio Johnson and Sharriese Hamilton in Porchlight Music Theatre’s 'Ain’t Misbehavin' at Stage 773

Taking us seventy years back, the situation/setting is an after-hours party in a Harlem basement in the winter of 1944. The opening title number ushers in five homegrown, go-for-broke, sizzling entertainers, their songs giving them away as well as creating their own dialogue on class, love, sex, Harlem, downtown, and surviving World War II. (The show works equally well as a rent party that also honors the recently deceased swing master.)

Lorenzo Rush, Jr., Lina Wass, Robin DaSilva, Shariese Hamilton and Donterrio Johnson in Porchlight Music Theatre’s 'Ain’t Misbehavin' at Stage 773

Robin Da Silva, in the part that Nell Carter immortalized on Broadway, avoids the thorns and pushes the pollen out of “Honeysuckle Rose.” Lina Wass coos content in “Squeeze Me” (though on opening night some high notes seemed to have no visible means of support). Vixenish Sharriese Hamilton, as the opportunistic ingénue, slings her sass in “Yacht Club Swing.” All but channeling Waller himself—complete with wicked asides—Lorenzo Rush Jr. illustrates why “The Joint is Jumpin” (in this case Stage 773). Slick Donterrio Johnson croons glory from the come-on ballad “How Ya Baby.”

Lina Wass, Robin DaSilva, Shariese Hamilton. Donterrio Johnson, Lorenzo Rush, Jr., and Austin Cook on piano in Porchlight Music Theatre’s 'Ain’t Misbehavin' at Stage 773

We get tributes to the “The Ladies Who Sing With the Band,” a tap-dancing Andrew Sisters spin-off with “Cash For Your Trash,” and a marvel of mimicry in “Handful of Keys”: Here, defining syncopation with off-time splendor, the cast imitates an entire jazz combo. The Harlem Renaissance happens here, along with the Lindy Hop, Jitter Bug, Cakewalk, and every other way to “cut a rug.”

Donterrio Johnson and Sharriese Hamilton in Porchlight Music Theatre’s 'Ain’t Misbehavin' at Stage 773

If the first act’s unashamed celebration of Waller’s lust for life isn’t persuasive enough, the second act moves from the credo of “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” to a spoof of the posh world of the slumming toffs who frequented the Cotton Club (“Lounging at the Waldorf”). Then it quickly descends into the reefer netherworld with Johnson’s tour-de-force as a drugged-out denizen in “The Viper’s Drag.” Novelty numbers like “Your Feet’s Too Big’” and the audience-clapping “Fat and Greasy” alternate with serious stuff like Da Silva’s heartbreakingly simple rendition of “Mean to Me” (with the perfect pun of the final line).

Donterrio Johnson and Lorenzo Rush, Jr. in Porchlight Music Theatre’s 'Ain’t Misbehavin' at Stage 773

A delirious evening ends with a medley of Waller’s best covers: The names barely suggest the joys they unleash: “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Two Sleepy People,” “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie, and “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed” are as fresh as the day they were recorded in a lucky studio. You couldn’t be present at a happier creation. But then—one never knows, do one?

Lorenzo Rush, Jr., Lina Wass and Donterrio Johnson in Porchlight Music Theatre’s 'Ain’t Misbehavin' at Stage 773

photos by Kelsey Jorissen

Ain’t Misbehavin’
Porchlight Music Theatre
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
scheduled to end on March 9, 2014
for tickets, call 773.327.5252 or visit www.porchlightmusictheatre.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

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