The intimate thrust stage of the Long Wharf Theatre turns out to be the perfect location to stage a revival of a popular, landmark Broadway musical. I’m talking about the show that established the blueprint and set the standard for all of the juke box musicals that followed, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” the fast paces, thoroughly enjoyable tribute to the music of legendary jazz artist Fats Waller, that fits quite comfortably onto the New Haven venue.
What’s especially rewarding about this production is that it reunites many of the creatives involved in the initial staging, including co-conceiver and director Richard Maltby, choreographer Arthur Faria, set designer John Lee Beatty, lighting designer Pat Collins and sound designer Tom Morse. Costume designer Gail Baldoni, though not part of the original team, did collaborate on the costumes for the 30th anniversary tour of this show and is supervising the costumes not only for this show but for a European tour that begins this fall.
What’s clear is that each member of the team remains quite protective and proud of their work on the show–and it shows through here. Beatty has adapted his original proscenium set design to fit onto the smaller Long Wharf stage and Maltby and Faria have redesigned the stage movement and dancing to accommodate an audience on three sides of the space. Other than that, save for a few entrances and exits that needed to be realigned within the Long Wharf’s layout, the delightful rambunctious feel of the Broadway original is replicated thoroughly and enjoyably here.
Of course, the production is aided in no small degree by a superlative cast, who have each enjoyed previous associations with the show to varying degrees. All five cast members stand out in their individual ways, but particular attention should be afforded to the slightly oversized and infectiously charismatic Doug Eskew who delights the audience with his saucy attitude and in-your-face flamboyance. He is especially memorable soloing on “Your Feet’s Too Big,” which Waller made famous on record. Eskew is also fine in a delicious duet with Kecia Lewis-Evans, a suitably ample performing with a strong and sturdy voice to match, of “Honeysuckle Rose,” which they perform with a mixture of spirit and sweetness.
Lewis-Evans is equally impressive whether leading the company in a rendition of “I’ve Got A Feeling I’m Falling” or standing out on her own in the touching, plaintive “Mean to Me,” one of the genuine highlights of the evening. She’s joined by the equally robust Cynthia Thomas to play a pair of competitive friends who share their secrets about how to land and keep a man in the boastful “Find Out What They Like.”
For Thomas, performing in “Ain’t Misbehavin'” represents a return to her roots as she was born in Bethany and grew up in New Haven, attending the Educational Center for the Arts downtown and graduating from Amity Senior High School. She solos on a deliciously delightful “Squeeze Me” which she issues as both a request and a challenge, and duets with Eskew in a wonderful “Two Sleepy People,” which Eskew threatens to change to “Two Sloppy People.”
Eugene Barry-Hill is the shorter and trimmer of the two men in the show and scores a lot of the dancing and more creative movement. His “Viper’s Drag/Reefer Song” mash-up features any number of slinky, sliding movement up and down and across the stage, a slow, deliberate dance using hands, hips and feet, to convey seduction and just the right amount of potential sleaze. He and Eskew join together for a boisterous “The Ladies Who Sing With the Band” which introduces a set of numbers by the three ladies in the cast, including a slow and then speedy version of “Cash for Your Trash” by the bouncy Lewis-Stevens.
Here, the diminutive Debra Walton gets to show off perkily in “The Yacht Song” and will later join her female cohorts and Eskew for the lazy, satisfying sounds of “Lounging at the Waldorf.” She also shines with Barry-Hill on a fond rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”
The five shine together in any number of their group songs, most significantly in “The Jitterbug Waltz,” “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around,” and the rambunctious closer of the first act, “The Joint is Jumpin’.” In addition to spreadin’ delight all around the audience, the five also demonstrate their ability to carry a touching ballad, as they unexpectedly stop and offer a slow, thoughtful and resoundingly tragic take on Waller’s “Black and Blue,” turning into a lament and commentary on the sad state of race relations and tolerance. Yes, a line of Andy Razaf’s lyrics may ring as cumbersomely anachronistic for a quintet of black performers today (not so, though , when the musical first opened in the late 70’s), but the cast pulls it off quite touchingly.
In addition to a six piece onstage band, there’s another important character on stage throughout, Music Director Phillip Hall, now in his seventh version of this show, who provides piano accompaniment on a large handcrafted instrument, his back to the players and audience the entire time. He’s of course a stand in for Waller and plays his piano with verve and skill, while simultaneously directing the band.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” only utilizes about a quarter of the prolific Waller’s canon, and is amazing to realize the number of familiar songs he has been associated with. Maltby and his co-creator Luther Henderson have been fortunate that so many of Waller’s compositions and recordings are indeed so lively and vibrant. They have thus been able to create a show that essentially never stops moving and more often than not is sent soaring out over the audience. And thanks to Maltby, there’s little or no repetition in staging, so that the entire evening feels original and unique. Maltby also uses the strengths of the individual cast members to contribute to the personalities of each number.
While there have been some successful juke box musicals before “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” that explored the music libraries of renown composers (“Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” and “Side by Side by Sondheim” come to mind), none before or after have enjoyed the long-term commercial success of “Ain’t Misbehavin’. ” There’s been nothing that can quite capture the sheer joy and exuberance demonstrated in “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” and as Long Wharf’s revival reminds us, it may be quite some time before some creative types can come up with a more successful formula and subject.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” plays through November 20 at the Long Wharf Theater, 222 Sargent Drive, in New Haven. For tickets, contact the box office at 203.787.4282 or visit the Long Wharf website.