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A CurtainUp DC Review
Ain't Misbehavin'

One never knows, do one.—Saying attributed to Fats Waller.
Kevin McAllister and Nova Y. Payton (Photo credit: Margot Schulman)
The small tables and chairs surrounding the stage are meant to evoke New York's famed Cotton Club, whose importance in the history of the Harlem Renaissance is legendary. It's where the Manhattan "swells" (i.e. whites) went to hear what was in the 1920's and 1930's the music being made by such great African-American artists as Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller. The latter being the comic songwriter and jazz pianist around whom the revue Ain't Misbehavin' was created in 1978.

The show won numerous awards and created a genre that is now called a jukebox musical. Not all the songs have weathered the transition to this century as well as one would hope but those that have— "Honeysuckle Rose," "Two Sleepy People" and "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" — are still a joy to hear.

Under Eric Schaeffer's Artistic Direction Signature Theatre in Shirlington has rightfully earned a great reputation for its musicals, particularly its productions of Stephen Sondheim's work. Ain't Misbehavin' ain't Sondheim, nor is it a great production due in part to Joe Calarco's mish mash direction and Jared Grimes's unimaginative updating of Arthur Faria's original choreography. The sequence of songs seems back to front. Why wait until the end of the second act to acknowledge the beautiful piano playing by Mark G. Meadows who knows how to tickle those ivories in the best slide piano style— glissando to purists, fast light fingering to the rest of us? Meadows fronts an able six-piece band whose members are introduced almost as an afterthought at the end of the second act.

The five singers take on different personas depending on the song. Iyona Blake acts the diva and Kevin McAllister, a soppy romantic. Nova Y. Payton is either badly miked — why the singers need mikes in such a small venue is another question— or very squeeky in her upper register and Korinn Walfall's singing and dancing lacks personality.

As for the men, two numbers stand out as best in show: Solomon Parker III's "Viper's Drag," about the effects of smoking reefers ("the sky is high and so am I," he sings) takes on a life of its own as Parker slithers across the stage. He is a nimble, facile dancer whose limbs seem fluid but as an actor he has a tendency to show off.

Another high point is Kevin McAllister's "Your Feet's Too Big" which he delivers in a seemingly drunken state that only enhances the humor in the lyrics. He is a very able comic actor who can sing. And the ensemble's straight-faced choral dirge-like rendition of "Black and Blue" — the sadness inborn in being an African-American— is very moving.

All in all it's a mixed bag of a show. The joint is not jumpin' all the time but when it does, it's good. But as the late, great Fats Waller was fond of saying, "one never knows, do one."

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Ain't Misbehavin' The Fats Waller Musical Show
Conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horowitz
Directed by Joe Calarco
Cast: Iyona Blake, Kevin McAllister, Solomon Parker III, Nova Y. Payton, Korinn Walfall.
Original choreography and musical staging by Arthur Faria
Musical adaptations, orchestrations and arrangements by Luther Henderson
Scenic Design by Paige Hathaway
Costume Design by Sarita P. Fellows
Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani
Sound Design by Ryan Hickey
Music Direction by Mark G. Meadows
Choreography by Jared Grimes
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Signature Theatre,
January 23 to March 10, 2019.
Reviewed by Susan Davidson, February 1, 2019.

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