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Review: Ain't Misbehavin' Hits All the Right Notes

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Talk about a reefer of five feet long
Not too fat and not too strong
You get high, but not for long
If you’re a viper.

Or — as sung by Leonard E. Barrett, on a luxuriously long exhale in Ain’t Misbehavin’ — a vipah. This number, performed with languid, stoned elegance, shows off both Barrett’s showmanship and his supple jazz singer’s voice, and is sufficient reason all on its own to catch Vintage Theatre’s tribute to legendary singer-composer Fats Waller.

But you’ll hear so much more than “The Reefer Song.” There are four amazing performers in addition to Barrett — Shashauna Nickelson, Cicely O’Kain, Hannah Wheeler and Dwayne Carrington — all stomping, emoting, hip-thrusting and singing their way through a feast of music composed during the Harlem Renaissance in the first three or four decades of the twentieth century, songs that range from raunchy to mournful, sensual to satiric. You hear familiar numbers like the show’s title song and “This Joint Is Jumpin’,” and other unknown songs that are completely surprising — for example, a parody called “When the Nylons Bloom Again.”

Carrington and O’Kain harmonize on “Honeysuckle Rose”; Nickelson, plaintive, sweet and sexy, exhorts her “daddy” to “Squeeze Me”; O’Kain returns to wonder with a little pout why her man is “Mean to Me”; Wheeler confides that she’s “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” Bowler-hatted and in a checked suit, Carrington gives a hilarious rendition of “Your Feet’s Too Big” and joins with Barrett for the sardonic “Fat and Greasy.” And everyone comes together for the profoundly touching “Black and Blue.”

Ain’t Misbehavin’ opened in New York in 1978 and won a Tony after moving to Broadway. It was last seen in Denver in 2005, at the late, lamented Country Dinner Playhouse. This new production is deliberately bare-bones and the sound system is a little iffy, but under the direction of donnie l. betts, the cast members give their all, the costumes flash and sparkle, pianist Eric Weinstein makes sure the joint keeps jumping, and the result is an evening of pure entertainment. You’ll be humming the songs well into the smoky night.

Ain’t Misbehavin’, presented by Vintage Theatre through April 26, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, 303-856-7830, vintagetheatre.org.

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