Presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre
Through May 16 at
TPAC's Polk Theater
An era is ending at Tennessee Repertory Theatre, as David Grapes steps down after a five-year stint as the company's producing artistic director. Grapes goes out on a high note, directing a very entertaining production of Ain't Misbehavin', the crowd-pleasing revue built around the career of composer/performer Fats Waller.
In his book Jazz Modernism, musicologist Alfred Appel Jr. states that a Holy Trinity of geniusLouis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Fats Wallerserved as the driving force behind the development of jazz music. Despite a short life, Waller (1904-1943) made huge contributions to musicand popular culture as wellas a sensational pianist and singer, and as the co-author of great songs running the gamut from quick-tempo, ragtime rave-ups to sultry pop blues tunes. Waller also recorded catchy popular songs by writers such as Hoagy Carmichael and Jimmy McHugh.
The breadth of Waller's musical activities are represented in Ain't Misbehavin' through some 30 different numbers, which were originally put together with linking patter by lyricist/director Richard Maltby Jr. in 1978 at New York's Manhattan Theatre Club. For a quarter of a century now, the show has delighted audiences with its blend of incessantly toe-tapping music and raucous spirit. But you still need the talent to pull it off successfully: five first-rate singers with a collective sense of humor and a cool combo that can swing like Waller.
Abby Burke, Connye Florance, Deanna Greene, Berwick Haynes and Korey Jackson exert a ton of energy and sing up a storm at the Rep. Gleefully strutting and mugging amidst designer Gary Hoff's elegant nightclub set, the quintet of actor-singers display facility with the Waller tunes and project their lively personalities along the way. There's a minimum of hardcore dancing here, but the numbers are staged in a cohesive fashion, with Lynne Kurdziel-Formato's choreography adding whimsical touches and a sense of movement to the unending flow of material.
Revues of this nature always run some risk that the formatone song after anotherwill tax the viewer's attention span. Maltby's short bits of dialogue and brief setups have charm and wit, ably connecting the music to a '30s and '40s Harlem dance-hall sensibility, including many humorous asides on male-female relationships. There are a couple of moments here where one more ballad in the wrong place could get audiences shifting in their seats, but each time the cast rescues the situation with an up-tempo number that assures continued momentum.
The high points are many. Burke's solo on the well-known Roy Turk/Fred Ahlert torch song "Mean to Me" wrings soulfulness out of every note. Haynes gets a load of mileage out of the comical "Your Feet's Too Big." Jackson takes center stage in two notable group numbers, the rousing " 'T Ain't Nobody's Biz-ness if I Do" and the sensual, mildly controversial "The Reefer Song." Together, the men lead the engaging fun of "The Ladies Who Sing With the Band." Big openers and closers like "The Joint Is Jumpin' " (complete with PETA-unfriendly furs and stoles), "Spreadin' Rhythm Around" and the title song all receive plenty of show-biz flair. Another ensemble piece, the melancholy "Black and Blue," features some beautiful, haunting harmonies.
Costume designer Barbara Pope decks out the gents in stylish suits and ties, and the ladies benefit from evening dresses that generally center on rich hues of purple, blue and teal.
The six-piece band, led by musical director Phillip D. Hall, do a great job accompanying the performers, and they're a superb ensemble in their own right, featuring Marcus Finnie on drums, Jeff Cox on bass, Roy Agee on trombone, Rod McGaha on trumpet and Denis Solee on reeds. Hall does his best Waller impersonation on the piano, and sings a little and fools around joyfully with the cast as well.
Adding to the ambience, the Rep has placed cabaret-style tables and chairs in front of the stage, which comes in very handy when the cast needs to make eye contact with the audience during a few choice songs.
Ain't Misbehavin' is the kind of show that might easily have appeared as a part of TPAC's Broadway Series of touring productions. In this case, Nashville's largest resident professional theater company does work that certainly measures up to that standard. And with that, the 2003-04 Rep season concludes, as does the sometimes tempestuous yet occasionally groundbreaking Grapes regime.
The Rep will pick up again under David Alford's artistic leadership beginning with the fall production of Lawrence and Lee's Inherit the Wind.
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