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THEATER REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin” is one of ‘the best musicals I have ever seen’

It’s impossible to watch "Ain't Misbehavin'" without finger-snapping, hand-clapping, or sitting still. Of the five performers not one is “better” than the other.

Ain’t Misbehavin’
Barrington Stage Company
Boyd-Quinson Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts
Written by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz, directed by Jeffrey L. Page

This writer loathes the promiscuous use of superlatives by theatre reviewers, but I’ll just declare—Barrington Stage Company’s new production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is one of the best musicals I have ever seen—Broadway or Off-, West End, anywhere. With flawless staging and performances, the revival, choreographed and directed by Jeffrey L. Page, not only restores the legacy of Black jazz pianist and composer Fats Waller (1903-1943), but also transcends its musical revue format to a searing perspective of Black identity in White America.

In the 1970s, Broadway showman Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz conceived the show first as cabaret, curating hundreds of Waller songs into three dozen or so. Fully staged, the show found its way to Broadway where it won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1978. Now, decades later, under the inspired treatment of director Page, the BSC revival theatricalizes anew the themes in Waller’s work. It’s the 1930s, the setting is the Savoy Ballroom, Harlem’s legendary dance hall, where Black people, here a brilliant quintet of performers, strut their stuff for other Black people: the joint is jumpin’, apropos of one of Waller’s most famous songs, which exuberantly concludes Act I. Act II takes the performers away from Harlem to the “hoity toity,” the White folk, who spend time “Lounging at the Waldorf,” the early second act numbers that signals what follows.

From left to right: Allison Blackwell, Maiesha McQueen, Anastacia McClesky. Photo by Daniel Rader.

It’s impossible to watch “Ain’t Misbehavin'” without finger-snapping, hand-clapping, or sitting still. Of the five performers not one is “better” than the other. The show is made up of over 30 non-stop songs; highlights (if at all possible to say which is “better” than the others) in Act 1 include “Honeysuckle Rose,” performed in a stellar duet by Arnold Harper II and Maiesha McQueen. (Harper’s baritone range is silkier than Luther Vandross’; McQueen’s sass is sassier than Nell Carter’s who originated the part on Broadway.)

An astonishing Jarvis Manning leads the quintet in the popular “T’aint Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do.” Allison Blackwell, back at BSC from last year’s wonderful George Gershwin review, sells the double-entendre in “Squeeze Me”: “Little Cupid is standing close by/ Come on, don’t let your fat daddy cry.” Anastacia McClesky takes the lesser known “Yacht Club Swing,’ and with a knockout dance routine, croons “there’s magic in a slow soothing ripple / That makes you dance even though you’re a cripple.” Cripple? It’s lyrics like this that are key to Waller’s subversive irony about being Black.

That theme poignantly concludes in an expertly calibrated succession of numbers in Act II. Manning, moving like a wet noodle, nearly stops the show with “The Viper’s Drag” also known as the “Reefer Song.” Continuing to lay bare the grit of being Black, Manning and Harper nearly take the roof off with “Fat and Greasy,” bringing the audience to an ecstatic appreciation of these guys “getting down.” The guys radically shift mood and stare down the audience, as if to say—can you handle the truth? Then the ensemble performs a heartbreaking rendition of “Black and Blue”: “How will it end? ain’t got a friend. / My only sin is my skin. What did I do to be so black and blue?”

Every aspect of the show reinforces the excellence of the other from the super-stylized zoot suits by costume designer Oana Botez to the Art-Deco set by Raul Abrego. Musical director Kwinton Gray, working with his 6-piece band, reinvigorates Luther Henderson’s original orchestrations. Director Page’s choreography is explosive, recreating what we can imagine the vibrancy of the old Harlem dance halls to have been all about. Waller’s jazzy melodies swing, swoon, and soar, but attend to his lyrics. One might consider Waller a Black Cole Porter; this superb “Ain’t Misbehavin’” makes us consider Porter a White Fats Waller.

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