Are you ready to get the join jumpin’? Because Ross Scott Rawlings and his seven piece orchestra are ready to wail away and tickles those ivories all night long over at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia. Jumpin’ to the stage after a sold-out summer of Abba, comes the music of Fats Waller by way of the show Ain’t Misbehavin’. Directed by Monique Midgette with Choreography by Shalyce Hemby and Musical Direction by Ross Scott Rawlings, this musical revue features the music of Fats Waller (and music which he made popular) from the mid 1920’s straight through 1943. There’s a little something fun for everyone at Ain’t Misbehavin’ this fall!
It’s a simple set. Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins doesn’t get too fancy or frilly, except for the stunning drape of chandelier-style crystals that sway suspended in a circle over center stage and the antiquated drop-lamps that lower during certain musical numbers to create the illusion of being inside “Fat’s Supper Club.” The lighting fixtures, decorative as they are, illuminates the stage and is completely functional, creating atmosphere and mood throughout the performance. Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin does an exceptional job of not over-using this method and finds balance in her ambers and low warm patches. Joslin also employs a mirror-ball during “The Jitterbug Waltz” and the effect is breathtaking. Her finest work, the shifting light tracks which create the illusion of a “follow spot” during “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling”, showcases a deep knowledge of how to light the intimate theatre-in-the-round space.
The show itself, which at its essence is somewhat of a disjointed musical revue (a true injustice to both the music of Fats Waller and the style of musical revues, laid down by co-conceivers Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz), is not without its issues, many of which are balance. Costumes, for example, have balancing issues across the board. Costume Designer Janine Sunday pulls out gloriously saturated gem-tone garments for the three female performers and underlays one of the male performers with an emerald under shirt as an accent, but leaves the fifth performer without any hint of color save for a lone pink feather tucked ever so subtly into his fedora. In a larger ensemble this might go unnoticed, but with just five performers, where only one (whose character bares no extraneous quality to force him to stand out in one way or another from the others) doesn’t match the others, it looks questionable.
Sound Designer Mark Smedley struggles somewhat with the show’s sound balancing, although this may be an incidental issue rather than a recurring one as the problem corrected itself in the second act. The band was largely overplaying the performers, and that’s making quite the statement as these five incredibly talented individuals are fit to bursting with volume, especially in their respective belts and sustains, and they were mic’d yet still being drowned by the pit. As mentioned, this was mostly corrected after the intermission but made a great many of the quicker-paced lyrics difficult to catch in the first act of the show.
Despite the aforementioned overplaying issue, Musical Director Ross Scott Rawlings is conducting one swinging orchestra upstairs throughout the entirety of the show. Rawlings, who at this performance played keys and conducted, leads six other musicians (at this performance Charlene McDaniel on clarinet, Dan Janis on tenor sax, Jay Ellis on trombone, Tony Neenan on trumpet, Frank Higgins on bass, evander McLean on drums) through the lively upbeats and down-swings of Fats Waller’s music. There are a great many tempo shifts as well as style shifts, which Rawlings skillfully stays on top of, all the while keeping the band moving in sync with what’s happening on the stage down below.
The music is so lively and enthusiastic that it leaves one desperately wanting more from Choreographer Shalyce Hemby. The show feels under-choreographed on the whole, with a great many missed opportunities to really infuse these moving musical numbers with the swing and steps of the times. To Hemby’s credit, there is one insanely hot number— “How Ya Baby”, which features Bryan Jeffrey and Kanysha Williams— that really showcases all she has to offer as a choreographer. The hot, jazzy steps that shuffle all over the stage in this number are truly impressive, but again leave the audience longing for more of it spread more readily throughout the musical. The movements that do exist for various other numbers are clean but err on the side of conservative and constricted, often falling in one space rather than fully flushed out over the entirety of the stage.
Director Monique Midgette also seems to have missed some opportunities to bring truly unique visions to this production. As it stands, Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a problematically organized musical revue that has no overlapping storyline, no characters, or any other manner in which to tie the musical numbers together, they don’t even flow in chronological order. Midgette misses a great opportunity to truly showcase her creativity and layer a concept over the show, or create invisible characters to fit over the performers to help give the show an earnest cohesive feel. While a lack of innovation and clever framing doesn’t necessarily detract from the show or make the talented performers any less talented, it does leave one wondering why Midgette might choose to lay down this musical straight as listed. To her credit, however, there was an extraordinary use of black and white photo images and video projections, albeit sparingly, crafted by Projection Designer Denise Rose, which did give the audience a little something extra to engage with during certain musical numbers.
Faults of the show notwithstanding, there are five exceptionally talented individuals putting on a highly entertaining series of songs over the course of the evening. The five performers— Kelli Blackwell, Kadejah Oné, Bryan Jeffrey, Tobias A. Young, Kanysha Williams— create glorious harmonies together, particularly during “Black and Blue” the show’s most somber and sobering musical moment that really brings the emotional gravity of these performers and their vocal capabilities right to the forefront of the number. There is a willingness to play with one another; the quintet possesses a silliness that reads well into some of the zanier numbers featured in the show, particularly any number that involves background shenanigans— like “The Jitterbug Waltz” where four of the performers slowly and serenely float around the stage but Kadejah Oné chews scenery with great hilarity as the odd-woman-out for this song. The five performers pair off well in duets and trios but also find stunning moments of solos that showcase their individuality as performers as well as their vocal fortitude.
Kanysha Williams burbles onto the scene singing a mile a minute during “Handful of Keys”, which is a somewhat problematic introduction to Williams as a singer because it does not give the audience a chance to really appreciate her full vocal capabilities before she’s thrust into her next solo piece, “Yacht Club Swing”, a number where she intentionally sings wildly off-key with purposefully poor pitch control. But fear not, Williams is given multiple opportunities to showcase her talented voice. With a radiant sound that is open and warm, Williams pours her heart and affections into her rendition of “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” and the effect is marvelous.
Kelli Blackwell brings all the sass, attitude, and soul this musical requires at various intervals throughout the show. While her big feature in the second act is a duet with Bryan Jeffrey, Blackwell puts her game face and intense vocalizations on display for “That Ain’t Right.” Adding delightful harmonies to the trio of ladies that sings “Lounging at the Waldorf”, Blackwell’s voice is readily robust and identifiable in such numbers. Taking the utmost sincerity and seriousness to her song, “When the Nylons Bloom Again” (which is a number in a series of late 1930’s and early 1940’s war-driven tunes), Blackwell really unearths the natural comedy which runs rampant through that number simply by creating a caricature of herself in that moment of the performance.
With a nod of homage to all the great women of the era that may have once sang these Fats Waller songs, Kadejah Oné puts her own vocal talents in the foreground and surrounds herself with the sound of singers like Ella Fitzgerald for her solo “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling.” Still letting the songs resonate through her voice as if they were her own, Oné delivers stellar sounds every time she sings. With a brassy attitude yet a full sound that really gives a classic edge to the number, Oné really settles in for “Cash for Your Trash” (featured in that lineup of war-driven numbers near the end of the first act.) But her true crowning glory is her solo in the second act, “Mean to Me.” The pure, unadulterated finesse that is poured into this rendition showcases just how talented Oné truly is.
When it comes to flash, with plenty of substance, that’s all loaded up in Bryan Jeffrey. Arguably the fleet-footed dancer that steals the show when it comes to his solo dance routines, Jeffrey is the cat’s meow and then some when it comes to movement. With crackling vocals that really create a unique sound, Jeffrey presents a floor show all its own for “The Viper’s Drag”, a drug-haze fueled number (traditionally known as “The Reefer Song”) that really gets his body in motion. Jeffrey has a grand time in various duets both with the other ladies of the show (like he and Williams who really burn up the dance floor with smokin’ hot moves during “How Ya Baby?”) as well as when he cuts up with the other male performer in the show, Tobias A. Young.
With a great deal of pluck and a whole bunch of big-barreled laughs, Tobias A. Young brings a soaring spirit to the production that is undeniably welcoming and most infectious. There’s no holding him back when he lays into “Your Feet’s Too Big.” The number itself is so utterly ridiculous that it just feels absurd, but Young is having such a good time with it, running all over the stage with it and cackling like mad that you can’t help but laugh at it and love it too. Cracking himself and the audience up in his duet with Bryan Jeffrey, Young gets a great energy wheeling behind “Fat and Greasy” too. But Young is more than just comic relief, there is a huge swell of vocal prowess and rich hearty singing that comes from the performer during numbers like “Honeysuckle Rose” that all but sweeps you off your feet.
You won’t be able to keep from tappin’ your toes or snappin’ your fingers or even singin’ and clappin’ along to all of the catchy tunes featured throughout the show. The five exquisitely talented performers more than make up for what the performance is lacking in other arenas and ultimately they make for a great evening’s entertainment.
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission