It isn't often a reviewer gets to write about a flawless performance, and to be honest, on those occasions the resulting review may not make for the most scintillating reading. Unvaried praise can be boring. So as a writer who likes to be entertaining it is with mixed emotions that I have to report having seen Ain't Misbehavin' done flawlessly. The perpetrators are the Washington Savoyards, holding forth at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street, N.E. (Very accessible to my Baltimore readers.)
A frequently-revived classic of the modern musical stage, as the world knows, Ain't Misbehavin' is a revue of songs by Thomas "Fats" Waller (1904-1943), composer, pianist, and singer, one of the geniuses of the Harlem Renaissance period. The revue "reviews" no fewer than 31 of his gems, mostly comic, a few deeply touching. The show has roots as a 1978 cabaret (designed to transport the audience back to the uptown and downtown venues that Waller haunted), and then got moved behind a proscenium when it went to Broadway. That hybrid heritage gives the show some flexibility to move either way; this production, while mounted on the Atlas' stage, emphasizes the cabaret setting, inviting audience volunteers to park themselves at the tables onstage (like the "students" in Spring Awakening).
Indeed, before the show even starts, one marvels at the cabaret-style set (courtesy of Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden) - or is it the lighting (designed by Andrew F. Griffin)? It's hard to say where one ends and the other begins, because behind the tables and the on-stage band and some hanging racks of liquor bottles, arranged to look almost like notes spread out on a clef, is a huge scrim that is lit in striking and (as the show progresses) changing colors. The lighting then becomes almost a character in this production, commenting on and highlighting the proceedings in an unusually intense way. For instance, in THE VIPER'S DRAG, an ode to the effects of marijuana, Daryl A. Spiers stands bare-chested atop the bar, silhouetted against a poison-green wash while smoke plays around him. The lighting, at least that aspect of it, is part of the set.
And once the proceedings get going, the two male and three female performers (Speirs, Iyona Blake, Nova Y. Payton, Lauren Du Pree, and Cliff Walker), plus a quartet fronted by Darius Smith, just keep kicking the show through the uprights. Each one's "character" is named for the member of the original cast who premiered the role (on Broadway, not in cabaret). Payton reprises Nell Carter, accurately reproducing the odd combination of brass and squeakiness that Carter trademarked. I loved Du Pree's (Charlayne Woodard) dancing throughout, and her deliberately off-pitch bit as the Indiana ingénue in THE LADIES WHO SING WITH THE BAND. Blake, following in Armelia McQueen's footsteps, has the red hot mama routine down pat. Walker takes on Ken Page's role, and, while few can impersonate Waller himself as Page did, walks effortlessly through the Waller lines when called upon to repeat them, including the signature line: "One never knows, do one?" Properly delivered, that gives you the essence of Waller, jumping bathetically from pseudo-British affectation to irregular-verb-sparse Ebonics in the space of five words.
There's a cultural statement there, obviously, a statement underlined by some of the songs in the show, most notably BLACK AND BLUE: "I'm white inside,/ But that don't help my case. / 'Cause I can't hide / What is on my face." Waller celebrated blackness, to be sure, but simultaneously partly internalizEd White pretensions. In an era when he had to enter some of the places he played by a side door, it would have been inhuman to resist completely the allure of white privilege. It's all on view in his song LOUNGIN' AT THE WALDORF, which contrasts the kind of freedom and looseness he could enjoy performing in Harlem with the stiffer, whiter milieu of the Waldorf Astoria, for which he had a certain ambivalence. As the lyric critically puts it: "They like jazz, but in small doses." Nonetheless: "Ain't it swell doin' swell with the swells in the swellest hotel of them all?" You don't need to be spot-on impersonating Waller to get that ambivalence across. One of the strengths of the show (assembled by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr.) is that it doesn't whitewash (if I may use that word here) this part of Waller's legacy.