David Alan Bunn in ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Photo: Mandee Kuenzle)
By John Dwyer and Herb Millman
Get to the Bucks County Playhouse as quickly as you can — the place has a five-alarm fire, with five glorious performers, two incredible swing dancers, and one brilliant director, all ablaze with talent.
The show is Ain’t Misbehavin‘, the 1978 Tony recipient for Best Musical. The Playhouse is having great luck this season with shows that premiered in 1978, like Deathtrap and Chapter Two. Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a Fats Waller revue originally conceived and written by Richard Maltby, whom is well-known for musical revues. Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Fosse, which he also conceived, are the only musical revues to have ever won the Tony for Best Musical. He also wrote the lovely, lyrical Starting Here, Starting Now.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ flows like a river, from one song to another, with no real intervening dialogue to provide a plot line, but there is a logic in the sequencing of the songs, and in the end one walks away with a sense of what it may have been like to experience life during the Harlem Rennaisance. Not all the songs were written by Fats Waller; “I’m Gonna Sit Write Down and Write Myself a Letter,” for example, was written by Ahlert and Young, but it was the Fats Waller recording that popularized it.
A successful production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ hinges on a cast that performs as a true ensemble and members who not only can sing a song, but also live it. This cast is perfection. When the ensemble is together, it’s like Sunday at church. There was a contagious spirit that had even the stodgiest and most reserved members of the audience tapping their feet and weaving their heads. They shouted with joy as the ensemble belted out “Aint Misbehavin’” and “This Joint is Jumpin,’” with cast members Aisha De Haas, Darius De Haas, Adrienne Warren, Max Kumangai and Brandi Chavonne Massey drawing cheers. Joining the cast as swing dancers were the ever-graceful Alicia Lundgren matched against the athletically-precise Richard Riaz Yoder.
There are so many good numbers in this play that it’s hard to pick the standouts, but they would have to include the beautifully- sung duet of “Honeysuckle Rose” done by Kumangai and Warren. Also, the seductive tribute to reefer madness, “The Viper’s Drag,” sung by Darius De Haas, had a slithery, sexy ease that makes one light up, or want to. The unforgettably moving “Black and Blue” is based on the double entendre of being beaten ‘black and blue,’ and of being Afican-American and downtrodden. It was performed under low lighting, with the cast virtually motionless and at their most emotional. The song drew one of the strongest rounds of applause in an evening of much clapping.
Hunter Foster is to be commended for his superb casting. He has brought together a band of triple-threat actor/singers who move well. But, as noted earlier in the season by Marsha Mason, an excellent director should be a triple threat as well, with experience in acting and writing and directing. Foster is a Broadway actor and librettist for the musical The Summer of 42 which was featured at the Playhouse last season. His knowledge and extensive writing credits formed the basis for his creation of magical moments throughout this evening.
Kudos also are due to the incredible choreography of Lorin Latarro, which flows from blocking to dance to blocking in a beautiful endless, seamless mix. Praise is also due to set designers Wilson Chin and David L. Arsenault, along with lighting designer Zach Blane. The sound by Jon Weston and costumes by Jennifer Caprio are also to be commended.
Ain’t Misbehavin‘ brought back the days when many of us stayed out all night and went to joints that were jumping. But at the Playhouse, the joint was not just jumpin’, it was pole vaultin’. The show didn’t wind down toward the end — to the contrary, it ramped up with a medley including “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and title song “Ain’t Misbhavin’.” By then, the stage was rocking and the audience was on its feet clapping and swaying.
Grab some tickets for this one while you can…word is getting out, and you don’t want to be left out.
Ain’t Misbehavin will be appearing through Sept. 7 at the Bucks County Playhouse, (215) 862-2121. Tickets are $25-$69.50, and running time is about two hours and 15 minutes with intermission. Weeknights at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; and matinees at 3 p.m.
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