Storytelling is at the heart of popular music. When a revue of popular songs is put together it’s already halfway to being a play: not a novel, maybe, but a collection of short stories. Sometimes, as with Dreamgirls, a plot’s concocted to pull the songs together. Sometimes, as with Black and Blue, the terrific 1980s revue of 1930s black American music, the connective tissue is the performers themselves, the forward thrust of the dance and music, and the cultural source, the community, of the songs.
Ain’t Misbehavin’, though it’s smaller and tighter, is much closer in spirit to Black and Blue: a collection of great songs, in great arrangements, delivered by an ensemble of sharp performers and a sizzling band. Premiered in 1978 and covering roughly the same time period as Black and Blue, it wraps itself around the personality and songs of the gregarious pianist, singer, and composer Thomas “Fats” Waller – songs he wrote, or songs by others that he performed and recorded. Sly, genial, and bursting with the wit and energy of one of the most innovative periods in American music, it’s one of the very best revues ever assembled: an effervescent expression of African American spirit, shaded by the harsh realities of a segregated and divisive nation.
Portland Center Stage’s bright and shining new production, which brought down the opening-night house on Friday at the Armory, reveals that it’s also a show of surprising elasticity. Director Chris Coleman, working with scenic designer Tony Cisek and with the permission of co-originator Richard Maltby, Jr., has knocked out the walls and opened the show to the streets, bringing in the heady Uptown of the Harlem Renaissance and the bleaker days of the Depression Thirties to give the songs a deeper visual and impressionistic context. He’s expanded the cast from five to eleven, and created, with Cisek, a whole urban community: apartments, bedrooms, alleys, piano parlors and party rooms, the kitchen at the Waldorf, where black cooks and waitresses serve wealthy white customers, cracking wise along the way. It’s a bit like bringing a little August Wilson atmosphere into the honkytonk, suggesting a web of interwoven stories waiting to be told.
The transformation gives a texture to the place and times that’s very different from Ain’t Misbehavin’s usual setting, a hothouse nightclub with the band and singers all squeezed together, raising the roof. It’s like the difference between the lean, bright attack of Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five and the smooth locomotive power of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. You might prefer one or the other, but each has its advantages, and isn’t it great to have both?
With this production Center Stage does the things the biggest theater company in any city should do, setting a high technical standard and spending its money on things that serve the show. The show has a Broadway look, with Cisek’s imaginative revolving set, Alison Heryer’s sassy period costumes, Duane Ferry Williams’ lighting, and some terrific dance sequences choreographed by Kent Zimmerman. The cast matches that quality. I’ve seen productions that are sung as well, and maybe in a case or two better, but this is the best acting across the board in any of the several Ain’t Misbehavin’s I’ve seen. The talent’s certainly there – several of the actors are Broadway or West End veterans – but even more impressive is the ensemble feel, the way they play off of one another, and how they do it within the tight storytelling context of each song.
There are highlights galore here, from the hilarious twist to Honeysuckle Rose (with Charity Angél Dawson and Mia Michelle McLain giving David St. Louis the surprise of his life, or at least of his evening) to the taut downbeat drama that Olivia Phillip brings to Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now. The revue’s thirty-odd songs come from a time when Tin Pan Alley writers and black jazz innovators were riffing on each others’ ideas like Yankee pedlars trading dry goods at a swap meet, and the lead performers – Dawson, McLain, St. Louis, Phillip, David Jennings, DeMone (who slips into Fats Waller’s shoes now and again), Maiesha McQueen, and André Ward – dig in with delight. The evening ranges from the predictable guffaws of novelty tunes like The Viper Song, Your Feet’s Too Big, and Fat and Greasy to the balladry of Squeeze Me and I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling, the pathos of McQueen’s Mean to Me, the bluesy bark of Ward and Dawson’s That Ain’t Right, the wry satire of Lounging at the Waldorf, and the deep dive of the gloves-off, defenses-down Black and Blue, a song that puts everything else into sober perspective. Through it all the performers exude personality, from DeMone’s broad wink to McClain and Ward’s comic hijinks to the atmospherics of supporting performers Hailey Kilgore, Ricardy Charles Fabry, and Jerrod Neal, who deftly flesh out the scenes.
Driving everything is a first-rate, tight small band that knows how to swing: Will Amend on bass, Mieke Bruggeman-Smith on reeds, Levis Dragulin on trumpet, Sam Foulger on drums, and the always excellent Rick Lewis conducting and on piano. Without them, the show wouldn’t work. With them, it sizzles. In a tradeoff for the expanded set, the band isn’t onstage as it is in most productions of Ain’t Misbehavin’. We can’t see them. But we feel them, almost every moment of the show.
For all its attractions, Ain’t Misbehavin’ exists in a curious political and cultural pocket. It’s an upbeat, optimistic, good-times sort of show, a sharp and witty entertainment that mostly stays away from the raw realities of racial history, and you can make a case that that tips it into a nostalgic territory that’s on the far side of a historical divide. Waller, Armstrong, Bojangles Robinson, Cab Calloway, the Ink Spots, and others who served their entertainment with a sharp sense of style and an affable face slowly gave way to the more outspoken and demanding likes of Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Miles Davis; and to B.B. King and others who plugged in their amps and electrified the blues, changing the compact between black artists and white audiences.
In that sense, Waller was no revolutionary. Yet, reality is always more complex than it seems. The songs in Ain’t Misbehavin’ also give voice to the urban optimism and unspooling joy of the Harlem Renaissance, to that moment when a whole community was discovering and defining its own possibilities, claiming its own art and its own sounds and textures of its own culture – a moment that’s had an indelible impact on the broader American culture for going on a century now. That was its own kind of revolution. Waller, it turns out, was a great artist and a great entertainer, and his broad, back-slapping good nature might have been a necessary mask to allow him to navigate successfully in a white-dominated entertainment world; or a natural expression of his own gregarious personality; or, more likely, a mix of the two. He was who he was, living in the culture he lived in, and he created sly, sophisticated, terrific feel-good music.
Center Stage’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ delivers the goods with brash and happy verve. In short, the joint is jumpin’. Friday’s opening-night audience broke out in a spontaneous standing ovation that, unlike so many in polite and proper Portland, was amply, richly deserved. Heck, I joined ’em.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ continues through November 29 at Portland Center Stage. Ticket and schedule information here.