By Barry Reszel
Every beloved musical theatre cast should be so fortunate.
Following their winter 2014 run culminating in Jeff Awards for Best Production—Revue, Best Director (Brenda Didier) and Artistic Specialization (Austin Cook), the leaders of Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre decided they’d be getting the acclaimed Ain’t Misbehavin’ cast (along with band conductor Cook) back together.
Perhaps they’re on a mission from God.
No doubt every performer who’s tearfully closed a run packed with standing ovations, genuine affection for the full creative team and the belief that under different circumstances the production could achieve Million Dollar Quartet longevity status in Chicagoland certainly thinks so.
But divinely inspired or not, this revue of Thomas “Fats” Waller‘s celebrated jazz, blues and swing canon set on a 1944 winter’s night in a Harlem basement’s after hours party is prime time entertainment for late fall/early winter musical theatre patrons of the second city. Best of all (for some) there’s no elf, leg lamp or Christmas crooning to be found. A full summary of the 1978 Best Musical Tony winner may be read here.
Porchlight’s production’s genius begins with Didier, whose dancer’s eyes guide her director’s touch, lovingly gliding the cast through 30-plus Waller numbers with no more than a phrase or two of spoken dialogue. Her approach is really more rhythmic than dance-choreographed, with each member of the five-person cast given both leading and supporting material. Characterization and relationship development, yes. Plot? Not so much. Though as a whole, Ain’t Misbehavin’ creates an aura that facilitates greater understanding of race, time and place.
The cast’s coordinating force is Cook, a masterful piano player with enough acting chops to become a sixth cast member. His leadership of the band, featuring Dan Kristan on bass, Michael Weatherspoon on drums, Bryant Millet on trumpet and Corbin Andrick on reeds and sax brings together a quintet equal to that found at the best jazz clubs in the city.
As for the cast, the huge voices of Robin DaSilva and Lorenzo Rush, Jr. are the most obvious takeaways. Her command of the stage on pieces like “The Joint is Jumpin'” and “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” is remarkable. Rush, who acts with his eyes as well as any stage performer, seems most at home with the comic side of his character and particularly shines in pieces like “Your Feet’s too Big.”
Subtler but equally talented are the gorgeous Sharriese Hamilton who confidently sells sexy (“Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now”) and funny (“Yacht Club Swing”), at times simultaneously; lithe physical actor Donterrio Johnson, the best dancer in the cast who brings down the house with the Act 2 showstopper, “The Viper’s Drag;” and Lovely Lina Wass, who rounds out the gifted ensemble (her solo in “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” is particularly notable).
Most numbers in the songbook are shared, and among the greatest gifts of Ain’t Misbehavin’ are some lovely harmonies. “Ladies Who Sing With the Band” and “Fat and Greasy” are showcases for the men, while “Keeping’ Out of Mischief Now”/”Find Out What They Like” highlights the ladies. Of course, the show’s title song, “The Joint is Jumpin'” and others spotlight the entire cast.
At Stage 773’s intimate space seating about 150, Jeffrey D Kmiec‘s unit set and Bill Morey‘s appropriate costuming are just right for the piece. Maya Fein‘s lighting is spot-on and particularly effectively eery for Act 2’s “The Viper’s Drag.”
Watching this production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ is to long to be with this cast, this band at a party where each takes his or her turn at the mic, implicitly trusting their accompanists to play anything desired from the entire musical theatre catalog. And then, realizing that’s pretty much what this show is.
Porchlight Music Theatre presents “Ain’t Misbehavin'” at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago, through December 20. More information and tickets are available by phone at (773) 327-5252 or online here.