Dan Kazemi hits all the right notes in directorial debut with The Milwaukee Rep’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’

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Christopher James Culberson and Kenney M. Green (foreground) and  Erin Willis and Britney Coleman in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Stacker Cabaret production of Ain’t Misbehavin’. -Photo: Michael Brosilow

As the last show of its Stackner Cabaret season, the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre is staging Ain’t Misbehavin’, a musical revue that celebrates the work of Harlem Renaissance icon Fats Waller.

It’s a unique production, featuring five actor/singer/dancer/instrumentalists who take the entire show on their shoulders. Guiding them is Dan Kazemi, a regular Milwaukee Rep guest as music director. He gets the opportunity with Ain’t Misbehavin’ to be director as well.

WiG talked to Kazemi about the opportunity and the show.

What did you think when you were asked to be both director and music director for Ain’t Misbehavin’?

It was a little bit of a surprise to me. I had musically directed Blues in the Night last season, which has a similar concept. Mark (Clements, The Rep’s artistic director) asked me if I’d be interested in taking on both roles, and, at the time, I just agreed wholeheartedly. Having never done both before, perhaps it was a little bit foolish to assume I could handle it all. But I knew that I could, and it’s all music. I have a great stage movement director I’m working with — Jenn Rose. 

Are you dividing your work between the two roles you play or approaching the job solely as a director?

At the start of rehearsals, I approached it as a director. I was pointing everyone’s brains in the right direction of what our concept is and how we’re going to approach the material. But we had to focus on the music right away and learn all the vocal music, so that’s what we did (next). With this kind of show it’s all about layering. You learn all the vocal music and see what’s there. We talk about character and see what’s there. We start layering in the instrumental stuff. But after that stuff is laid out, it does become one comprehensive thing. The musical choices and the directorial choices and the staging choices are one and the same. It’s this big jigsaw puzzle of who’s available where, to do what when.

How have you designed the Stackner Cabaret to accommodate this production?

In our production, because of the design team’s wonderful work, hopefully you’re transported to a whole other era as soon as you walk in. It’s a wraparound design idea, so you are inside our Harlem basement as you get there. What we’ve done is we’ve set it up as if it’s a rent party in Harlem, after-hours — this is after all the players have played their gigs in another location and are coming here to earn a little extra money to pay their rent.

Is that the traditional way the show is presented?

Not at all. I think that traditionally the show is kind of a glossy musical revue of Fats Waller tunes. Which doesn’t mean that it isn’t packed with fun and energy and emotion, but it’s not necessarily about an intimate connection between actor and audience. And that’s totally unavoidable in the Stackner Cabaret. You’re so close, you have to create an experience where you feel in the room with the actors.

What music is featured?

They’re all either tunes written by Fats Waller himself or they’re tunes Fats Waller made famous. The way I look at it, we’re having our Harlem rent party, and it’s as if it’s Fats Waller night. So what does that mean? It’s a lot of Tin Pan Alley-type stuff, stride piano — Fats Waller made stride piano famous — and some of the tunes go in a more bluesy direction.

This is not necessarily a museum piece, where we’re trying to give you a lot of information about Fats Waller. There are some moments where extra information is given, but I’ve kind of shied away from those, because it wasn’t consistent. This is about learning about the spirit of this era and of this music more than learning from a textbook.

Your actors also serve as singers, dancers and instrumentalists. Did that require you to approach the show differently?

It’s always a challenge. There’s so many more layers to building the show itself. It’s definitely difficult. But it’s immediately amazing. When you watch someone go and tap dance and then pick up a bass and then pick up a violin and then sing a number and then play the piano — I mean, there’s nothing like it. It’s just packed with surprises and showcases the amazing talent that’s onstage.

How have you divided up the different performing roles during the show?

We try to maximize our sound. It’s a different sound than you might normally hear with Ain’t Misbehavin’, but hopefully we’re capturing it as a pared-down version that’s still very exciting, because we’re doing everything that we can to make it rollicking and live and big and huge. Sometimes it’ll be just a piano and everyone singing, sometimes it’s drum and bass for a while with a solo singer. It’s constantly changing and moving and there’s so many textures. It’s all about creating a broad fabric of music.

Would you direct this way again — or would you simply direct?

Yeah, absolutely. … I’d be open to both sides of things, although as a music director I’m pretty persnickety. Although maybe that would strengthen the production.