Before there was After Midnight, before there was Smokey Joe’s Cafe, and before there was Black and Blue, there was Ain’t Misbehavin’, the 1978 musical revue featuring the Fats Waller songbook. Although musical theatre critics often point to the flurry of jukebox musicals gracing Broadway and regional stages in the twenty-first century, jukebox musicals are not a new phenomenon. Nor are they a monolith. Mamma Mia! and & Juliet approach the jukebox musical in radically different ways than Jersey Boys and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical do. Then, of course, there are the aforementioned revue shows that take a music genre or a specific songbook and simply give audiences an atmospheric concert. Ain’t Misbehavin’ does just this, showcasing dozens of the songs that made composer Fats Waller one of the most prolific artists of the 1910’s into the Harlem Renaissance. Conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horowitz, Ain’t Misbehavin’ won the 1978 Tony Award for Best Musical and is firmly in the musical theatre canon. Yet, the show is rarely produced nowadays.
Houston’s Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS) addresses this lack of first-rate productions of Ain’t Misbehavin’ with a terrific new production running at the Hobby Center from September 20 to October 2, 2022. For anyone looking for an evening of perfectly sung, danced, and staged music and a much-needed escape from reality into a bygone era, Ain’t Misbehavin’ is the answer.
The highlight of the show is undoubtedly the music (as it should be—it’s a revue!) and TUTS’ production knocks the music out of the park. The musical features five performers who masterfully sing the entirety of the score while showcasing smooth dance moves harking back to the early twentieth century. While the show is an ensemble show with Ashley Támar Davis, David LaMarr, Melrose Johnson, Paris Bennett, and Will Mann equally doing the heavy-lifting to present the rapid-fire setlist, there is one standout: David LaMarr. Holy hell does LaMarr steal every single scene! With the dexterity of Gumby and the facial expressions to put any TikToker to shame, LaMarr commands the stage in a way that completely elevates the material. As if LaMarr’s work in act one wasn’t enough, his rendition of “The Viper’s Drag”—while wielding quite possibly the largest blunt I’ve ever seen—brought down the house.
To be fair, every cast member has their moment to shine. Will Mann’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” is especially a riot. Melrose Johnson’s slays “Squeeze Me.” Ashley Támar Davis’ “Keepin’ out of Mischief” is perfection. And Paris Bennett’s “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” is every bit as good as Nell Carter’s rendition preserved on the Original Cast Recording (Indeed, Bennett should add the number to any concert she gives in the future).
Although a production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ could easily become a one-note concert of songs written nearly a century ago, Monique L. Midgette’s direction keeps the show fast-paced and exciting. Midgette’s use of scenic designer Tim Mackabee’s multi-level set representing a glamorous Cotton Club-esque locale keeps the show visually interesting and audiences engaged. Choreographer Courtney D. Jones’s dances and movements perfectly highlight the genre, the era, and the songs.
I do, however, have one tiny quibble. Despite the show being a nearly two-hour tribute to the music of Fats Waller, we don’t really learn much about Waller himself. Of course, this quibble is not with TUTS, which is working with the material on hand. And, to Midgette’s credit, the musical does open with a brief video of Waller addressing the audience. But I wanted more (perhaps a lobby display or an essay in the Playbill would have done the trick?). I suppose, at the end of the day, therein lies the difference between a musical like Ain’t Misbehavin’ and something like Jersey Boys which is biographical and gives audiences significant context about the Four Seasons. We don’t really leave Ain’t Misbehavin’ with that type of history lesson.
Even so, we are left with a toe-tapping evening that fully conveys just what a dynamite composer Fats Waller was. That the songbook holds up well into the twenty-first century and that Ain’t Misbehavin’ is still an exciting piece of musical theatre over 44 years after its Broadway premiere is no small feat. As they often do, TUTS delivers a first-class production of an important piece of musical theatre history.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.
This post was written by Trevor Boffone.
The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.