Songs to Stir the Soul
Director Hugo Jon Sayles's choice to present Ain¹t Misbehavin¹ as a New York City "rent party" lends the collection of Depression-era tunes a laid-back informality that makes the audience feel at home starting with the first note. The Broadway musical revue, now showing at the Nomad Theatre in Boulder (following last fall's successful run at the Town Hall Arts Center in Littleton), pays homage to the works of legendary bluesman Fats Waller, the son of a high-profile minister who denounced jazz music as a product of "the devil's workshop."
Thankfully, the top-notch cast -- backed by a splendid three-piece band (bass man Larry Henley, drummer Michael Jones and the superb Purnell Steen, who doubles as pianist and musical director) -- marvelously blends the sublime with the risqué. Whether they're belting out ballads of heartfelt feeling, winking and nodding through suggestive ditties or dancing up a storm during instrumental interludes, the five talented singers endow each scene with abundant humanity. As performed against a beautifully lit backdrop of cutout windows and door frames, the two-and-a-quarter-hour smiler always leaves one wishing for more.
In true ensemble fashion, no performer rises above the others, yet all lend distinct touches. So, in no particular order: With his feather-footed gait and gravelly bass/baritone, Edward R. Battle exudes an infectious largesse, gently swaying to the musical accompaniment in ways that make him look like he's cutting a mean rug when he's barely moving his feet. He imbues "Honeysuckle Rose" with his own brand of philandering charm, hilariously sputters through "Your Feet's Too Big" and dives right into the famous "Write Myself a Letter." And it's sheer theatrical justice when Battle is permitted to be the first to utter the immortal quip, "One never knows, do one?"
Tossing off high notes and over-the-head leg kicks with equal measures of grace and verve, VanNessa Perry uses exquisite phrasing to glide through "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now." She's even more effective during several energetic dance sequences with her zoot-suited partner, Dalon Herndon, a good-natured lout who, appropriately enough, never fails to sink to the occasion. He's as wriggly as they come during "The Viper's Drag" and, paired with Battle, lets it all hang out in the hilarious, politically incorrect duet, "Fat and Greasy."
In addition to earning a few laughs as a catty, segue-trampling chanteuse, Lonnie McCabe summons a wealth of emotion in "Feeling I'm Falling" and effortlessly assumes a brassy nightclub persona during "When Nylons Bloom Again" -- "The only way to keep affection fresh," she advises, "is to get some mesh for your flesh, ladies." And Darla A. Herndon mesmerizes during "Squeeze Me," a tender love song with a silky falsetto ending. Alternately spunky, pouty and sultry, Herndon practically makes a one-act musical out of "Mean to Me"; on opening night she drew appreciative cheers when rising to the tune's scat-like cadenza.
While their individual abilities impress, the cast members display even greater virtuosity during group numbers. They kick up their heels in "Joint Is Jumpin'," impersonate musical instruments for "Band" and deliver the show's signature song with aplomb. However, the show's most poignant episode is undoubtedly "Black and Blue," a heartbreaking quintet about racism. Partly sung a capella, the number is, in its own way, as eloquent as any of Mozart's operatic ensembles.
The design elements never fail to ennoble the actors' efforts: Set designer Stuart Barr provides a tasteful, serviceable environment; costume designer Catherine Lindsay outfits the actors in period garb that's well-suited to each performer's personality; and lighting designer Brian Miller illuminates the proceedings with a saturated, artful array of hue and shadow. Best of all, Sayles (assisted by Janice Guy-Sayles) choreographs and stages each piece with remarkable economy and insight -- a full-bodied, high-spirited approach that bespeaks an undying appreciation for a sometimes underrated songsmith's timeless appeal.
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