Chicago, you have no idea how good you have it. Brought back for a limited run, Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773 remounts Ain’t Misbehavin’ the Tony Award-winning musical tribute to influential Jazz musician Thomas “Fats” Waller. The larger than life pianist and composer, Waller was one of the most significant and prolific leaders during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and 1930’s. His work an essential part of the foundation of the celebration of the black musical artists in New York City. The Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom were at their height of prominence and notoriety. Conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murry Horwitz, Ain’t Misbehavin’ is set in a basement-level Harlem nightclub on December 15, 1944. Light on story, but heavy on foot stomping soul, five performers presented an evening of raucous, bawdy and laugh out loud songs that reflected the mood of the era. Directed and choreographed by Brenda Didier, this review was a smashing Windy City success last year, awarded the 2015 Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Production, Best Direction – Brenda Didier and Best Artistic Specialization – Austin Cook. What is so remarkable, a year later, the entire original Chicago cast has returned for one more round of song, dance and play.
As a musical review, you will be hard pressed to find anything better. Lorenzo Rush Jr. shares his lush baritone, lion’s roar of a voice. His casting no small coincidence as he bares more than a subtle resemblance to Waller himself. Rush’s signature mugging put to fantastic use on songs including Your Feet’s Too Big. Sharriese Hamilton brings both her radiant vocal chops and endearing, ingénue good looks, as the younger woman, flirting and sashaying her way through the club. Donterrio Johnson adds mischief, crisp dancing skills and outward sex appeal to the mix, singing about the love of smoking marijuana while often shaking his booty, cheekily at the audience, Robin DaSilva’s commanding, velvet smooth voice and zaftig figure make me hopeful for her casting as Effie White in the 2016 Chicago remount of Dreamgirls and Lina Wass brings both sass and sparkle to the proceedings, including her ode pantyhose (this was set during World War II after all. Ladies stockings were in short supply) with When the Nylons Bloom Again. No matter how they splintered and rearranged this fine cast, from multiple, gorgeous, individual solos to the full powered quintet, this team produced one winning number after another, spreading their collective joyous rhythms across the stage. In-between songs, there were numerous one-liners between the women of different generations.“I love FAKE fur” DaSilva quips at Hamilton. More like “dyed rat!” adds Wass. Rounding out the showcase, additional musical highlights included Ain’t Misbehavin’, Lookin’ Good but Feeling Bad, The Joint is Jumpin’, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, and an audience sing-a-long to the tune of Fat and Greasy.
Musical director Austin Cook and his team of six musicians rise to the occasion as well. All involved here firing on all cylinders. Sustaining the look of the time, jazz influenced, period costumes designed by Bill Morey, wig design from Kevin Barthel and an effective set created by Jeffrey D. Kmiec. Maya Fein’s lighting also influenced the mood, adding both sexy ambiance and dramatic effect, whenever necessary. Winning from start to finish, Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a Joint Jumpin’ good time. In a crowded landscape of lavish musicals now playing in the greater Chicago area, Ain’t Misbehavin’ should quickly rise to the top of your must see list.
Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773 Ain’t Misbehavin’ is now playing through December 20, 2015