Musicals that shine a spotlight on one vocalist, group, or composer – so called “jukebox musicals” – have become a popular way to engage audiences. But before we had Jersey Boys, Billy Joel’s Movin’ Out, Carole King’s Beautiful, Jimmy Buffett’s Escape to Margaritaville, Tina: The Musical, and, most recently, The Cher Show, there was Ain’t Misbehavin’, celebrating jazz great Fats Waller, which won the 1978 Tony Award for best musical. Unlike so many other shows which tell the star’s story, Ain’t Misbehavin’ places the music itself center stage. The new production at Arlington’s Signature Theatre does justice to Waller’s incredible legacy.
Mark G. Meadows (Photo: Christopher Mueller)
Waller was well known for his skills as a jazz pianist, so Signature wisely tapped Mark G. Meadows, who not only plays the piano, but also is the sixth cast member, joining Iyona Blake, Kevin McAllister, Solomon Parker III, Nova Y. Payton, and Korinn Walfall. This group of actors is multi-talented, with big voices and all the right moves. Even though the show doesn’t have a plot per se, song lyrics provide a vehicle for telling stories, some of them funny, some sad, others romantic, even sexy, and one that makes a political statement that still resonates today.
Iyona Blake and Nova Y. Payton (Photo: Margot Schulman)
The title song, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” opens the program, with the entire cast taking the stage and Meadows on piano leading the impressive six-person band. With 16 songs in Act One and 15 in Act Two, on display is Waller’s incredible volume of work, although even this sample only scratches the surface.
Kevin McAllister and Solomon Parker (Photo: Christopher Mueller)
“Honeysuckle Rose” is perhaps the best known song in the show and Payton and McAllister perform an engaging duet. Other standout numbers in the first act include Blake’s “Squeeze Me,” Parker and McAllister’s “The Ladies Who Sing with the Band,” and Meadows showing his dexterity on the piano with “Handful of Keys.”
Solomon Parker III (Photo: Margot Schulman)
Despite many engaging performances in Act One, the production lags a bit, but picks up steam in Act Two. Parker, who has dazzled us with his dancing in Signature’s Billy Elliot, takes over the stage with “The Viper’s Drag,” his movement athletic, artistic, and captivating. That lively number segues into Payton’s heartrending “Mean to Me.” Then, before we can blink, McAllister has us laughing with his “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Any suggestion that Waller’s range is limited is put to rest with just these three numbers.
Director Joe Calarco is more successful maintaining tempo in Act Two, and he has the actors taking full advantage of Signature’s stage. Entrances from the aisles allow for interaction with the audience, seated in nightclub-like tables close to the stage. Costume design by Sarita P. Fellows is eye-catching and period perfect.
With Signature’s intimate space and with voices as big and confident as those possessed by this talented cast, less amplification would have served the production better.
Top photo: Solomon Parker III, Iyona Blake, Nova Y. Payton, Korinn Walfall and Kevin McAllister. Photo by Christopher Mueller.
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