Ain't Misbehavin', Portland Center Stage, Fats Waller, Chris Coleman
By HOLLY JOHNSON
We’re in Harlem in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and the music and dance climb right inside us.
Delicate and precise, joyous and sassy, tearful and tender. These are some of the impressions that flood our senses in the presence of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” currently at Portland Center Stage in full splendor through Nov. 29. The splendor here being that of voices, characters sketched through songs, faces, movement, dance and a compelling feeling that takes hold from the first downbeat.
A musical valentine (with plenty of dance) to the late great composer, Thomas ”Fats” Waller, who in 1938 alone, recorded 100 songs by himself and others, the show features his music plus songs of his contemporaries that he arranged. Harlem-born and the son of a preacher who deplored his racy lifestyle, Waller was a genius on the keyboard at a time when the Harlem Renaissance, a blossoming of all the arts, was flourishing between World War I and the Great Depression.
Under Chris Coleman’s smart direction, the cast of 11, whose only dialogue is song lyrics, give us a taste of Harlem life in the backstreets, alleys, bedrooms, parlors, kitchens of grand restaurants and other settings where the locals lived, loved, worked and socialized. The shadowy walls with their pentimento sensibility, layers of art deco wallpaper that suggest a world-weary elegance and perhaps layers of history, enhance Tony Cisek’s sublime rotating two-storey set, a sure prizewinner that’s made even better by Diane Ferry Williams’ dappled, moody lighting design. Each song has its own setting, from “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at the outset to the sultry, melodic “Jitterbug Waltz” (one of the best songs ever written) to the madcap “This Joint is Jumpin’” at the end of act one. Numbers move from kitchen to boudoir, and that rotating set just keeps up its mesmerizing circular movement, song after song.
It’s impossible to choose favorite performers here: They’re all at the same dizzyingly high level of talent. Many of the cast members are new to PCS, including Mia Michelle McClain, Maiesha McQueen, Jerrod Neal, and Andre Ward, and each bring important individual talents to the stage. We last saw the wonderful David Jennings in “Dreamgirls” on the PCS stage, and he’s back with energy to spare. “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” “Honeysuckle Rose” and the magnificent, full-chorused “Black and Blue,” co-composed with Waller’s frequent collaborator Harry Brooks, are some of the staged tunes, but they’re more than mere songs—miniature stories and anecdotes, moments in time that take us to another era while remaining universal. We’re in Harlem in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and the music and dance climb right inside us.
Rick Lewis is the musical director. The outstanding period costumes are designed by Alison Heryer. For information and tickets, visit the PCS website at pcs.org.