As Ray Charles and B.B. King and a whole lot of other singers have urged America, Let the Good Times Roll.
Tigard’s Broadway Rose Theatre got the message, rolling back the musical clock to an even earlier eminence of American song: the legendary singer, songwriter, organist, and stride pianist Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller, who was born in 1904 and died far too early, from pneumonia, in 1943, but not before adding a vibrant and intoxicating and slyly witty chapter to the Great American Songbook of the 20th century.
At least professionally, Waller was all about the good times, creating a bouncing style of intoxicating popular music that in 1978 was gathered into one of the best musical revues (or “jukebox musicals,” as they’re often called now) in the American repertory: Ain’t Misbehavin’, conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz, created and originally directed by Maltby, choreographed and staged by Arthur Faria, and named for one of Waller’s biggest hits.
Broadway Rose’s new production — the first in the Portland area since a 2015 run at Portland Center Stage — opened Friday night on the company’s New Stage, and by the end of the show the full house was stomping and clapping and cheering and seemingly ready to break out in an impromptu “Jitterbug Waltz,” just one of the roughly 30 songs spooled out over the show’s two acts.
And little wonder. As the world emerges slowly from a not-exactly-over-yet pandemic, and the climate crisis deepens, and wars and rumors of wars rain down on our heads, and much of American life seems to be crumbling into acrimony, it’s hardly surprising that people are hungry for an occasional stroll down the sunny side of the street. You can call it escapist or you can call it plain old common sense, but it can be an excellent thing in hard times to at least occasionally accentuate the positive: The years of the Great Depression and World War II, after all, were also golden ages of stage and screen comedy — some of it also carrying surprising sting — and saw the creation of some of our finest popular music.
This Ain’t Misbehavin’ is also something of a balm for Broadway Rose and its audiences: The company was deep into rehearsals for the same show and just about ready for opening night when Covid restrictions hit in the spring of 2020 and shut everything down. Now it’s back, in a reconceived production, and it feels just a little like life is moving forward again.
All of the songs in Ain’t Misbehavin’ were either written by Waller or are ones he frequently performed, and although the show has precious little dialogue they are little masterpieces of storytelling.
The show opens with the title song and closes with a cast-and-band full blowout version of Honeysuckle Rose, and in between offers a wealth of both musical and cultural charm built on such interconnected sources of inspiration as the Harlem Renaissance, big-band music, jazz and gospel and the blues, the rich urban culture that Black Americans built in spite of (and often in defiance of) legal and cultural suppression, and Tin Pan Alley, and Broadway, and Saturday night and Sunday morning, and Black style from rhythm and dance to zoot suits to bright colors and big-brimmed church- and party-going bonnets.
There’s a strut to this show, and in spite of what sometimes can seem frivolity a sly and slicing and sometimes sardonic wit, a characteristic that has been largely leached out of most contemporary popular music.
Behind the wheel of Broadway Rose’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ are Eugene Ware-Hill, who directs and choreographs and designed the set, which contains a dominant and movable piano and a large downstage playing area with little cafe tables on either side and a scrim behind which the band plays; and William Knowles, who is musical director and conductor and is almost always on stage at the piano keyboard, on rare occasion speaking as Fats himself.
The show’s cast of five fine singer-actors — James Creer, Antonía Darlene, Charles Grant, Troy A. Jackson, and Jai Shanae — wink and drink and fight and flirt and dance and sing, sometimes solo, often in concert, with great affability and musical charm.
In his program note Ware-Hill refers to the title song “Ain’t Misbehavin'” as “The Big Lie,” “because the characters spend the next two hours doing just the opposite.” And so they do. Many of the songs are about cutting loose, cruising for some action, engaging in seductions, bragging and crying and crossing lines, boasting and toasting and looking for love in all the wrong places, finding fleeting moments of pleasure in a world designed to clip your wings.
There are larger-than-life novelty tunes such as “The Viper’s Drag/The Reefer Song,” in which Grant struts and slides as his hipster character inhales; and “Your Feet’s Too Big,” in which Creer laments an anatomical indelicacy; and “Fat and Greasy,” a taunt featuring Creer and Grant; and “Cash for Your Trash,” in which Jackson makes clear her refusal to give anything away.
There are songs of defiance: “That Ain’t Right,” “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do”; and love songs: “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling,” “Two Sleepy People,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”; and the comic if socially sketchy “Find Out What They Like,” in which Darlene and Jackson reveal the secrets of attracting and keeping a man. And there are songs that have simply become irreplaceable standards of the American Songbook: “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” “It’s a Sin To Tell a Lie.”
Broadway Rose’s production is deeply choreographed, creating a deliberate razzle-dazzle and a feeling for the rhythms and styles of Black nightlife in Waller’s time. A lot of jazz hands are in action, a little more than to my taste, but that’s just me; I prefer a subtler sense of style. It’s a choice, and Ware-Hill’s makes a lot of sense in light of the songs and the show’s milieu.
Pacing is smooth and accomplished: Only once did I wish for a pause before moving on, at the beginning of the song “Black and Blue.” For me it’s the number that adds cultural and emotional depth to the show, the moment of stark truth about the racial reality in America that explains what the high times are in response to and perhaps escaping from; and I’d like to have seen it set off just a little more. But the ensemble rendition is honest and haunting, and pause or no pause, the audience felt it.
Kudos, too, to the onstage band, which is bright and brassy and under Knowles’ direction keeps the whole evening moving merrily along: reed players Alicia Charlton and Sean Kelleher, percussionist Yuya Matsuda, bassist Amy Roesler, trombonist Bryant Byers, and trumpeters Levis Dragulin and Pablo Rivarola.
I also find myself lamenting that while this kind of music, which I love for its lyrical cleverness, percussive subtleties and melodic and harmonic surprise, will always be with us, it is with us now mostly in a museum sense, as a repository of highlights from a different age. Will sounds like these ever make their way to the musical mainstream again?
As Fats was fond of saying, “One never knows, do one?”
If you go to see Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Broadway Rose you can also see Spreadin’ Rhythm Around, an art exhibit hung on the walls of the theater lobby, of works by Black visual artists in the Portland area. It’s an interesting and highly varied show, highlighted by Saturday Night Fish Fry, one of Arvie Smith’s terrific pop-culture-soaked satiric paintings, and also including works by Marvin Eans, Dominic Harris, Lisa Jarrett, Niema Lightseed, Alice Price, and Philip A. Robinson Jr.
- Company: Broadway Rose Theatre Company
- Where: New Stage, 12850 S.W. Grant Ave., Tigard
- When: Wednesdays-Sundays through Oct. 15
- Ticket Information: Here