All Things Entertaining and Cultural
“Ain’t Misbehavin'” began an era of shows built around one songwriter, singer, or artist by taking a man’s music, Fats Waller’s, and using it as the basis for a smart, lively revue that enhances smart and popular tunes with a hint of a story behind each number, lively or sensual arrangements, entertaining choreography, ample comedy, and ampler personality from the cast playing it. “Ain’t Misbehavin'” has the further distinction of not only being the first but the best of the lot. (“Jersey Boys,” its nearest rival, is different because it has a plot and dramatic structure.)
The Delaware Theatre Company production has the advantage of being directed by Richard Maltby, Jr., the show’s original director and, with Murray Horowitz, its co-creator. He builds in many of the memorable bits from the first production that appeared at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club before moving to Broadway in 1978 and receiving the Tony for Best Musical.
Maltby is served by a fine, talented cast that has complementary appeal, Kecia Lewis and Debra Walton being stickouts among a versatile and able group. Wilmington audiences have the good fortune of getting to see “Ain’t Misbehavin'” is what truly ranks as a revival, given the fidelity to which Maltby has adhered to his original view of the show, in an intimate setting that has the closeness and immediately of the MTC staging. A good time is in store for all.
“Ain’t Misbehavin'” is a show in which the musicians and are as important to the singers. Using a piano that looks as if it was imported from the saloon in “Destry Rides Again,” Billy McDaniel, billed as William Foster McDaniel, goes from muscular stride piano to a more delicate touch and always finds the right tone and rhythms for the songs Waller wrote or introduced. McDaniel recalls original arranger and orchestrator Luther Henderson in looks and piano virtuosity. He is aided in making DTC a theatrical jazz retreat by drummer Kenny Crutchfield, saxophone player and clarinetist Vernon Jones, trombonist Brent White, trumpeter Kenny Bean, and bassist Jerrell Jackson. This ensemble swings in a way that is a show in itself. Putting performers in front of it to strut, entertain, and sing with gusto adds to the merriment and energy “Ain’t Misbehavin'” exudes.
All of the design at DTC is based on the Broadway mounting, but costumer Gail Baldoni, set designer Kacie Hultgren, and lighting designer Rita Carver do well as they adapt or mirror their models, John Lee Beatty, Randy Barcelona, and Pat Collins. The show looks great, bold and colorful and roaring with vitality. Red dominates the set and the lighting. This is fitting and proper as brightness rules, and “Ain’t Misbehavin'” is a great example of splashy exuberance and the virtue of going over the top.
The tunes associated with Waller are the reason for the party Maltby and his cast create, and they more than do their job. They range from ballads like “Keeping Out of Mischief Now,” beautifully done by Walton, haunting melodies like “The Jitterbug Waltz,” arranged with a careful combination of elegance and glitter by Henderson and played with grace by McDaniel and company, novelty pieces like “Lounging at the Waldorf,” one of the songs for which Maltby wrote the lyrics (as he did for “Jitterbug Waltz”), big personality pieces like “Your Feets Too Big,” done with comic emphasis and exasperation by Doug Eskew, and rousing saloon numbers like “The Joint in Jumpin’,” which more than lives up to its title.
Non-stop liveliness is the rule of the day on Maltby’s stage, where something is always happening. Difficult numbers like Eugene Fleming’s turn in “The Viper’s Drag” engage and keep up the tone of the performance as much the presentational sequence that begins with “The Ladies Who Sing With the Band” and big production passages like “Off-Time” and the second act opener, “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around.” Each performer gets the chance to display a wide range of talent, and each, but particularly Lewis and Walton, gives weight to every bit, note, or dance step he or she is assigned.
Kecia Lewis has been a favorite of mine for more than 25 years, ever since she played the woman who came from the blue to dominate the setting in Baikida Carroll and Emily Mann’s musical adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s “Betsey Brown” for the American Music Theater Festival and McCarter.
Lewis has a deep, rich voice that embraces songs. Even when she’s belting or giving a raunchy growl or comic twist to a note, Lewis gets the most out of her music.
She’s also a good actress. She can effectively use her size when warning an upstaging and far more diminutive Walton she is going to “break your arm,” and she can be delicate and graceful within her Rubensesque frame, as when she croons an affecting “Mean to Me” or “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” that make you empathize with the character Lewis is assaying at the time.
Lewis’s vocal and physical power, combined with the subtlety she can muster in quieter tunes or while dancing with a demure air, is a treat to behold every time she takes the DTC stage. I enjoyed her performance more than I liked Nell Carter’s Tony-winning turn in the original “Ain’t Misbehavin.'” I even preferred her comic take on the bit during “Jitterbug Waltz” when needing to get off her feet, Lewis’s character just about lugs herself to the piano and shows immeasurable relief when she removes her shoes, giving McDaniel a whiff of them as she does. There is one time when Lewis imitates Ms. Carter than I would eliminate. It’s the first note of “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling,” specifically the “oh” in “Oh, honey.” Like Ms. Carter, Lewis gives a jazzy comic sound to the note, sort of if it was coming from a muted trumpet. I think it would be better if she kept the song a ballad, did the opening “oh” in her own contralto,
Debra Walton is another delight and another who can make you laugh one second and break your heart the next. Walton is also adept at parody and is fearless about singing wrong notes or dancing clunkily in a way that is totally right for her character but is done so naturally, one could think Walton had a lapse.
Walton’s role is to be the thinner, younger woman of the ensemble. Her difference in size and age is pointed up by Lewis and Cynthia Thomas during the “Ladies Who Sing With the Band” sequence when Thomas says to Lewis, “Your little sister is doing all right,” and Lewis responds, “I don’t have a sister,” followed by “I hate that skinny girl” (because she’s getting all the men’s attention) before she and Thomas return center stage to display some of their own wiles.
Walton doesn’t need to play off of others or happily take the clown role to be noticed. She has natural stage presence and wonderful song-and-dance ability. She can cut up and make fun of less-than-able entertainers in “The Yacht Club Swing,” then invite you to share her character’s lonesome winsomeness in “Keeping Out of Mischief Now.”
Walton is a star as a member of the “Ain’t Misbehavin'” ensemble and as a solo performer. She sings with vigor, dances with zest, and confidently holds the stage during the few quiet, intimate moments Maltby’s staging allows. Watching her, I thought of many shows in which she could be the leading lady and steal the audience’s hearts.
(One note about Walton. She looked lovely with her hair swept up and pinned for “Ain’t Misbehavin,” but the night before, when she was in the audience for “Just Jim Dale,” a confection of a solo act the irrepressibly talented Dale brought to DTC, she was ravishing with her curls cascading around her face.)
Doug Eskew is a teddy bear of a man who reveals a big, engaging smile every time he parts his lips.
Eskew is called on to do a lot in “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Because of his height and amplitude, he gets to play the heavy when a conflict among characters occur. He is also the stand-in of sorts for Fats Waller so he gets to use amiable charm and playful wit to present a tune or two, such as “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” use his comic chops in “Your Feets Too Big” and “Fat and Greasy,” and show the depth of his bass-baritone during his ensemble work in “Black and Blue.”
Eskew had to relax into his role more than Lewis and Walton did. He, Thomas, and Fleming can be self-conscious about the comic or choreographic bits Maltby asks them to do, Eskew less than the others. Parts of the first number in which he gets to stand out, “Honeysuckle Rose,” were forced beyond the scope of Maltby’s direction. You sense an actor doing a number instead of a character expressing a sentiment. In less presentational pieces, Eskew seems to suspend rolling his eyes or overusing his generous voice, and show the deftness he has as a comic and overall performer.
Although Eugene Fleming doesn’t look like Andre De Shields, the original performer is his role, he sounds like him and that, sometimes, make it seem as it Fleming is consciously trying to harken back to De Shields as he performs.
I’m sure this is my perception/delusion and not Fleming’s design or intention, but I often heard De Shields when I was listening to Fleming.
One number Fleming did better than De Shields or anyone else ever did is “The Viper’s Drag.” This sequence was always, to me, the “Jellicle Ball” passage of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” the extended number that goes on so long and as is so limited in its variety, it interrupts the tone and flow of the overall show, which then has to re-establish itself.
“Ain’t Misbehavin'” is luckier than “Cats” in effecting its recovery, but with Fleming doing “The Viper’s Drag,” the DTC production has nothing to recover from. Fleming is hypnotizing, and in the right way. He draws you into the number as adroitly as he draws on the reefer his character holds, and offers to share with a member of the audience. The company seems to join in more felicitously than I remember from any of my two dozen or sort previous experiences with “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” The actor also enlivens “How Ya, Baby?” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”
Cynthia Thomas has the most difficult time getting past the vaudeville nature of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and letting her characters do the work. You see and hear her self-consciousness, as if she’s always thinking of how to do a bit or make the audience notice that she’s joking and that they and she must know she really can hit that note or sing it on key.
Thomas’s awareness of performing doesn’t take all that much away from her ability as a singer and as an integral member of the ensemble. She is a good partner to Lewis and Walton on many occasions and actually uses her shyness about giving in totally to Maltby’s style to advantage in “I’ll be Happy When the Nylons Bloom Again,” in which she’s decked out in a black velvet gown adorned by sporadic rhinestones, and uses a toney British accent.
I don’t want to be unfair to Thomas. She is an asset to the show and the ensemble. Her voice has a pleasing purity to it, she is adept at comedy, and obviously enjoys being an entertainer.
Richard Maltby, Jr. gets “Ain’t Misbehavin'” moving from Moment One. McDaniel is knocking out a simple rendition of the title tune, Eskew comes out and adds some comic asides to the familiar lyrics, and the number builds in waves until the entire cast is singing, and the song, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” has launched a pace that says “show biz” and will be maintained throughout.
The proof the opening number is no fluke comes right away when the ensemble bounces, sways, revolves, and goes into perpetual motion in “Lookin’ Good but Feelin’ Bad.”
The second song tells you “Ain’t Misbehavin'” is going to be a total delight, and the second song doesn’t life. After all, it’s a sin to tell a lie!
“Ain’t Misbehavin'” runs through Sunday, April 27 at the Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street (adjacent to the Riverfront Market and Harry’s Seafood Grill by the banks of the Christina River), in Wilmington, Delaware. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $50 to $40 and can be obtained by calling 302-594-1100 or going online to www.delawaretheatre.org.