-Theatre Review by Victoria Kennedy–
Baltimore, 10/17 – 11/23/2014, The Vagabond Theater presents Ain’t Misbehavin,’ the second production of its 99th season. Directed by Rikki Howie Lacewell, this musical revue evokes the jazz music of the Harlem Renaissance, an era of artistic excellence and innovation that defined the historic New York City neighborhood throughout the 1920s and 30s. In a nod to Fats Waller, one of the most renowned performers of the period, the show utilizes his piano rolls and smoky voice to convey the spirit of a time when artistic songs narrated daily events and newfound rhythms expressed the night’s pulse. Musicians improvised in lively juke joints, and supper clubs highlighted well-choreographed performances of show tunes, featuring soulful singers. This production doesn’t miss a beat.
The musical direction of LeVar Betts nails the instrumentation with authentic style. Likewise, the cast of seven talented performers delivers heartfelt and humorous vignettes prompted by the lively and emotional songs. Brenda D. Parker, Michelle Bruno, Summer Hill, Amber Hooper, Melissa Broy Fortson, Timoth David Copney and Kevin Sockwell rouse audiences with familiar tunes. The title song, “Honeysuckle Rose” and “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness” beg viewers to tap their feet and sing along.
Individually, the cast members show Broadway-worthy abilities. Copney performs “The Viper’s Drag.” Lamenting his dream of “a reefer five feet long,” as the number explores his drugged hallucinations. He is a theatrical trifecta, equipped with the voice, the moves and the charisma to give the audience the sensation of a real “pull” on a reefer. Later, Parker’s rendition of “Mean to Me” is wrought with emotion and power in an engaging portrayal of the sincere chanteuse, a talent also showcased by Michelle Bruno throughout the production. There’s humor when Sockwell employs skillful vocals and animated facial expressions, performing the song, “Your Feet’s Too Big,” easily drawing laughs from the crowd.
Equally powerful, Summer Hill shows her chops in Act One, as the youthful Charlaine, with a combination of verve and skillful singing. In the “Yacht Club Swing” she stylishly cuts a rug, proving herself an agile match for Copney’s dancing. Not to be forgotten, Hooper and Broy Fortson complete the ensemble of nightclub revelers. With tag team delivery, they inject a comedic element reminiscent of the bewitching hour—when the night becomes loose and jovial. Their mismatched cue card flipping during “Fat and Greasy” is a tongue-in-cheek method for inviting audience participation, signaling the audience to call out “Fat” and “Greasy” in the chorus. Collectively, the cast personifies harmonic excellence.
The dynamic set design creates several scenes at once, providing the backdrop for each musical song and its accompanying story. Thanks to the theatre’s skillful lighting technician and the vibrant music, the stage is seamlessly transformed between scenes. The eyes of viewers are directed first to a park bench, then to a juke joint, and finally to a packed nightclub where jazz musicians are performing. Audiences will swear they’ve spent the night at the famous Cotton Club or an after-hours dive on 125th Street.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ has the peculiar ability to show the beauty of Harlem, but Rikki Howie Lacewell spares excessive polish. She still provides enough grit to make us feel like we’re hanging out with a real bunch of friends. Her production simmers with delight then boils over with spice. Audiences are treated to a rare glimpse of Fats Waller’s realm, rendered complete by his memorable music. The characters, meanwhile, convey the passionate nature of the people and time period, presenting stories and personalities that are governed by song. “Black and Blue” is performed with poignancy and conviction, as the cast delivers a powerful message about the racism prevalent in this period. The soberness of the note is softened considerably by the strong harmony of the ensemble. Their performances echo the tremendous spiritual release that took place during the Harlem Renaissance and has audiences singing along.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ is playing at Vagabond Theater, 806 S. Broadway, Baltimore, MD. Until November 23, 2014.
Post Photos Courtesy of Tom Lauer