DEXTER, MI–Ain’t Misbehavin’, the current offering at the Encore Musical Theatre, might have been the first JukeBox musical to really take off on Broadway when it debuted during Jimmy Carter’s years in the White House.
This production is as lively, fun, and full of toe-tapping moments as the Broadway original.
Like many, but not all, jukebox musicals, this musical play has a plotless structure, which the creators nailed together with 30 songs written or recorded by the great Fats Waller, including the well-known title song. The musical selections and the interaction among the five-member cast pushes the show into the realms of romance, jealousy, grief and black identity.
But there is an arc to the order and selection of the songs that makes sense and feels like a kind of musical narrative.
The first act introduces the five energetic and talented cast–Arielle Crosby, Elizabeth Ann Gray, Tammie Harris, Chris Joseph and Dante J.L. Murray–performing via acting vignettes and choreography catchy and risqué songs such as ’’TAin’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” which Fats Waller recorded, and “Honeysuckle Rose,” which Waller wrote with Andy Razaf. The latter has been covered by many artists including Willie Nelson. These songs are set in Harlem between the world wars in Waller’s heyday, and specifically at The Savoy Ballroom, which the Encore has represented on its stage with a solid set design by Shane Cinal.
It’s difficult to single out performers, as they almost move as one through the musical play. There are no laggards on the vocal department. Mr. Murray and Mr. Joseph both exude a saucy swaggering presence through their numbers with and without the ladies. Murray delivers “Your Feets Too Big,” with the help of an audience member he selects each performance. Great fun. Ms. Crosby has great vocal range and just the right amount of sass as she infuses her songs like “Keeping Out of Mischief Now,” with emotion and humor. Ms. Gray and Ms. Harris are also superior vocal technicians and actresses.
As ever, the costume designs of Sharon Larkey Urick are spot on for the period and the music. Mr. Joseph’s pin-stripe suit with light blue stripes, for example, is delicious and perfect for his role and the time. The ladies are adorned in evening dresses and often hats, also just right for transporting the actresses to another time and place where Fats Waller was rocking clubs and ballrooms.
As much as the Waller-era music and stories assembled by Luther Henderson, Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horowitz delight, the show and cast also brings us together for a face stiffening and teary few moments as the cast delivers “Black and Blue.” It’s a song about living as people of color in a world that too often, then as now, qualifies people based on the color of their skin. It’s a piercing moment in the show.
Ain’t Misbehavin plays through October 2. Check out Encore Musical Theatre’s Facebook page for possible comp offerings during the run.