Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

Ain't Misbehavin'
Porthouse Theatre
Review by Mark Horning

Also see David's review of An Impending Rupture of the Belly

Jim Weaver, Tina D. Stump, Aveena Sawyer,
Chantrell Lewis, Eugene Sumlin

Photo by Bob Christy
Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller was an accomplished jazz pianist, composer and singer who helped developed the Harlem "stride style" of piano playing that became the basis of the modern jazz piano of today. During his short career (he died tragically of pneumonia at the age of 39 in 1943), Waller recorded over forty hits that even to this day are recognized by audiences around the world.

In 1978, a collection of songs either composed or performed by Fats Waller was turned into a Tony Award winning Broadway show called Ain't Misbehavin'. The revue featured later "Gimme a Break" actress Nell Carter, who won a Drama Desk Award, a Theatre World Award, and a Tony Award for best performance for the show. In total, the show won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical, two World Theatre Awards, and three Drama Desk Awards and ran for over 1,600 performances.

Ain't Misbehavin', with a book by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr. and orchestrations by Luther Henderson, features thirty-one hits by various artists and composers from the swing era of the late 1920s to the early 1940s. The production on stage for Porthouse Theatre at Blossom Music Center is directed by Eric van Baars.

The setting is a swanky Harlem nightclub where the wealthy elite of New York City have gathered to hear an evening of swing. The musical trio consists of Edward Ridley, Jr. (standing in for Waller) on piano, with James Alexander II on drums and Jeremy Poparad on stand-up bass. True to their music roots, the musicians play without expression much like those of old. Five singers share the singing duties: Tina D. Stump, Jim Weaver, Chantrell "Channy" Lewis, Aveena Sawyer, and Eugene Sumlin, all of whom go out of their way to engage the audience.

Fats Waller wrote and performed songs that reflected his life and surroundings, thus subjects such as infidelity ("That Ain't Right"), love ("Honeysuckle Rose"), music ("Handful of Keys" and "Rhythm Band"), drugs ("The Viper's Drag"), and even World War II rationing ("Cash For Your Trash" and "When the Nylons Bloom Again") are found in the collection. His hit "The Jitterbug Waltz" is written in the key of E-flat major in the style of the great classical composers, but with a swing beat to it. There is even a nod to the segregation laws of the time in the song "Black and Blue."

This fast-paced two-hour show (with fifteen minute intermission) flies by as jazzy swing numbers like "'T Ain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do" are balanced out with heartfelt ballads like "Mean to Me" and comedy novelty numbers such as "Your Feet's Too Big." Costuming is era-appropriate, with the singers making a number of changes throughout the performance, with a high degree of elegance, as was the case in the original high-class integrated venues. The show is solid music with no dialog between numbers. The piano key border for the stage and performance area works well, and the performers have plenty of room to show off their dancing skills.

Paramount to the performances is the level of beautiful harmonies found richly layered in each song (think Manhattan Transfer) as three, four, and even five parts dazzle the audience with a hypnotic blend of smooth sound. The cast soon develops a give and take rapport with the audience that culminates in a joyous back and forth during the number "Fat and Greasy."

Bring along a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and whatever other picnic delights you wish for some open air theater that is the Porthouse tradition. This show will have you jumpin' and jivin' in your seat. It is the musical revue at its best.

Ain't Misbehavin' on the Porthouse stage at Blossom Music Center, 1145 West Steel Corners Road in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio through July 27, 2017. Tickets may be purchased by calling (330) 672-3884 or online at Days and times are Tuesdays through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. The picnic area is open 90 minutes prior to the start of the shows. Special stage edge seating is available for patrons wishing to make a $100 donation to the "Parking Lot Fund" and includes cabaret seating plus a bottle of wine.

Next up at Porthouse Theatre will be Disney's Newsies, which runs July 27 through August 13.

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