‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ recreates the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance

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Erin Willis, Christopher James Culberson, Kenney M. Green, Britney Coleman, and Bethany Thomas. -PHOTO: Michael Brasilow

The vastly accomplished cast of the Milwaukee Rep’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ sings, dances and acts. Among the five of them, they play piano, drums, bass, banjo-uke, violin, saxophone, trumpet and tuba. On opening night, they moved from task to task and location to location with nonchalant joy.

Director/music director Dan Kazemi, in eliminating a separate band in favor of actors with musical chops, hatched a marvelous plan. Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby put together this Fats Waller revue way back in 1978 in New York. I’ve enjoyed it a few times over the years. But I’ve never seen the show done with the flair and originality of this production.

The genius of the script is that there is no script — no dialog, no historical/biographical monologs, no explicit roles to play. It’s nothing but songs, 31 of them, 21 by Waller with various lyricists and the rest associated with Fats the performer.

This lack of direction could be a drawback for some casts and directors, but it opened opportunity for Kazemi, his design team and Britney Coleman, Christopher James Culberson, Kenney M. Green, Bethany Thomas and Erin Willis.

No one needed to tell us we were smack in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance in full flower. Mary Folino’s spot-on costumes told us so, but not to the degree that the performers did. Their absolute grasp of period musical style drove it home.

They rocked the place with the rollicking jazz of the day, especially in “The Joint Is Jumpin’.”

I hasten to add that no trace of camp or nostalgia came into any of this. The actors presented themselves as proud Harlemites c. 1930, celebrating music, dance and humor they could call their own. They all would have been Cotton Club stars back in the day.

Kenney M. Green, complete with tilted derby, spent much of the evening channeling Waller, pounding the ivories, mugging and firing off crude one-liners with Fats-like abandon.  

Bethany Thomas wrung every bit of humor from the contrast between the little-girl high soprano at the top of her voice and the dark, weighty contralto at the bottom of it. And she relished the role of old-time Red Hot Mama.

Britney Coleman played all the strings and the ingenue, sometimes seductively and sometimes as a comic airhead. She is both crazy sexy and crazy funny, with a special gift for physical comedy.

Christopher James Culberson played the smooth operator, the king of the dance floor, as well as the saxophone and the drums. His flirtatious, combative duet with Coleman made “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” a comedy highlight. His serpentine body language and languid singing made for an uncommonly amusing and convincing rendition of “The Viper’s Drag,” a vintage celebration of marijuana.

Erin Willis, a fine pianist, played the proper and serious woman. But once that facade cracks, look out. Her duet with Thomas in “Find Out What They Like” bowled us over with its abrupt shifts between the fastidiously prim and the outrageously raunchy.
Willis took on the show’s saddest song.

Many songs from the era express the feelings of women damaged by men, none more touchingly than “Mean to Me.” Willis sang it so simply, so innocently, so honestly — she almost spoke it — that it was almost too much to take.

While Ain’t Misbehavin’ reflects the optimism and energy of the Harlem Renaissance, it doesn’t ignore the dark side. The cast addresses it specifically in “Black and Blue,” the most profound number in the entire American Songbook. On opening night, as Willis sang, Thomas, Culberson, Green and Coleman gathered around and joined her in a celestial blues chorale — not a wail of pain but a demand for an answer:
“What did I do, to be so black and blue?”

For the dramatic backstory of the writing of the song “Black and Blue” and for more of veteran writer Tom Strini’s insight into Milwaukee’s cultural scene, visit striniwrites.blogspot.com.

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