Paper Mill: The State Theater of NJ
Millburn, NJ - June 2003
Review by John Kenrick
Twenty five years after Ain't Misbehavin' took Broadway by storm, Paper Mill has mounted a revival that proves this honey of a show is still a surefire crowd pleaser. The cast and staging are new, but the pleasures are sweetly familiar.
The premise is deceptively simple. Two men and three women perform some thirty songs associated with African American jazz legend Fats Waller. The inventive team of Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horowitz wove these elements together to invoke memories of Harlem in the 1920's and 30's. This was a time when black musicians who earned their living playing downtown came back uptown to unwind at smoky nightclubs and all-night "rent" parties. This atmosphere offered all sorts of theatrical possibilities, and Ain't Misbehavin' runs its gleeful way from sophisticated struts ("Spreadin' Rhythm Around") to low comedy ("Fat and Greasy") to classic ballads of lost love ("Mean to Me"). No wonder Ain't Misbehavin' won the Tony for Best Musical and ran for 1,604 performances. It came back for a limited run in 1988 as sassy and classy as ever -- the only Broadway musical ever revived by its full original cast. The material and the original staging were so solid that they had not lost any of their appeal.
Director and choreographer Ken Roberson (director of the Broadway hit Avenue Q) offers a fresh staging that serves the material well most of the time. Using the left side of the stage to give us a glimpse of backstage action proves to be an ongoing distraction, and there is no need to hit the audience over the head with such solid comic material. But a friend who has never seen Ain't Misbehavin' before said this production was the best revue he'd ever seen Roberson gets the pacing right and sees to it that the overall impact of the show comes through.
Neil Patel's set starts out as a giant cathedral radio that turns around to reveal a slick art deco bandstand. Paul Tazewell's costumes are a bit understated at first, but his second act designs pack a dazzling punch assisted by some first-class lighting courtesy of Betsy Adams.
The cast drips with talent, each one relishing their solo moments. Darius De Haas is a standout, sizzling in "The Viper Drag" and dancing up a storm in "How Ya Baby." Angela Robinson offers a smoldering "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now", and NaTasha Yvette Williams has fun with "Squeeze Me." E. Faye Butler and Doug Eskew have fine voices, but comic overkill weakens their interpretation of numbers like "Honeysuckle Rose," "Cash For Your Trash" and "Your Feets Too Big." When all five join forces for "This Joint Is Jumpin'" or "Black and Blue," the magic of Ain't Misbehavin' shines through as powerfully as ever.
One major complaint There were many moments in the first act where opening night nerves or sound problems (perhaps both?) made lyrics disappear into a general blur. While the diction seemed far clearer after intermission, I urge the cast and crew to make sure that every word of these grand songs can be heard from first to last.
The true heroes of this revival are the incredible musicians in the onstage band. Led by pianist William Foster Daniel, who conducted part of the original Broadway run, these amazing men bring the golden age of jazz to rip-roaring life in every number. Their medley at the start of Act Two was a bona fide showstopper, and many on opening night lingered after the curtain call music to cheer for these glorious pros. Edward Alex and Robert Carten (reeds), Stanton Davis (trumpet), Brian Grace (drums), William May (bass) and Alfred Patterson (trombone) all deserve credit for delivering serious, soul stirring pleasure.
And that is what Ain't Misbehavin' is all about a good time served up with a solid dose of intelligence and talent. If you have never seen this show, Paper Mill's revival gives you a chance to see one of Broadway's all-time finest revues. Sure, there may be more revivals, but as Fats Waller himself so aptly put it one never knows, do one?
This limited run closed October 19, 2003