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Ain’t Misbehavin’

By Robbie Whelan | Posted 2/22/2006

Ain’t Misbehavin’

By Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horowitz

At the Chesapeake Arts Center through Feb. 26

The most striking thing about Ain’t Misbehavin’, the Fats Waller musical revue, is how shocking Waller’s songs must have been back in their day. The famous gin-joint pianist poked fun at the downtown whites who spent their days “Lounging at the Waldorf,” sneaking voyeuristic thrills at Harlem jazz clubs by night. “They like jazz, but in small doses,” goes the song. “Don’t rock or you might cause thrombosis.”

Other songs, such as “The Viper’s Drag,” in which the singer fantasizes about smoking a five-foot-long joint, are unabashed embraces of the vices and sinful stereotypes white folks pinned on Harlem in the 1930s. Hypersexualized tunes such as “Find Out What They Like” are sort of like proto-Lil’ Kim tracks. All of it is as scandalous as the first time you hear Bessie Smith yell for a reefer with her pig foot and bottle of beer, then tell you to lay her ’cause she’s full of gin, and you remember exactly when this was all recorded.

The test of a good revue, then, is whether it produces in its audience nostalgia for the age, regardless of whether or not we were there. This Winters Lane production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a floor show worth its salt, and its exuberant, hilarious cast makes great use of the limited space of the tiny theater at Brooklyn Park’s Chesapeake Arts Center.

The show opens with the title number and a quick transitional song by the whole company, followed by Troy (Troy Hopper) singing on “’T Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do.” Hopper was a surprisingly lithe dancer, and his rendition of the tune was playful, flippant, and fun. Leanto (Leanto E. Jones), the other male in the cast, sang a slow version of the classic “Honeysuckle Rose,” pausing to chuckle hilariously between most lines, in a thumping, pedal-tone bass that held its strength all night. Later, he belted out a goofy “Your Feet’s Too Big,” and got the crowd roaring for the sing-along, “Fat and Greasy,” jumping and waving his arms like a maniac with Troy.

Of the three women in the cast, Lanor (Lanor Long) had the best voice—her “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” and “Mean to Me” were formidable Dinah Washington imitations. Michelle (Michelle Harmon) sang more than her share of silly joke numbers, and sang them well, but wasn’t quite as sultry as she needed to be on “Squeeze Me.” Ellana Barksdale, playing the stately older diva, was classy and spry, especially with “When the Nylons Bloom Again.”

Other highlights were a slow-drag “Jitterbug Waltz”—“Nothing else to do/ and I’m completely drunk/ on this three-quarter rhythm”—that actually made you feel drunk, some explosive full-company numbers, and some great Savoy Ballroom juke-jiving choreographed by director Anya Randall Nebel.

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