Chances are if you’ve lived in Sarasota any time at all, you’ve seen a production of Ain’t Misbehavin’, the Fats Waller musical that brings to life the era of 1920s and ’30s Harlem. But that’s no reason not to see it again in its current staging at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s new home on 10th Way and Orange.
WBTT itself presented the show earlier in its history, and Florida Studio Theatre has also mounted it a couple of times. It’s just hard to resist those crowd-pleasing songs, from the frenzy of The Joint is Jumpin’ to a sweet ballad like Mean to Me to I Can’t Give You Anything But Love to the title tune.
And Harry Bryce, director/choreographer here, is certainly a professional at delivering this Richard Maltby Jr.-Murray Horwitz tribute to Fats. He’s directed it more than half a dozen times, but doesn’t seem to have lost any of his enthusiasm or creativity on the way.
The cast of Ain't Misbehavin'.
The flexibility of seating in WBTT’s new theater allows, in this case, for the audience to be seated on three sides around the stage so that we feel like we’re guests at a nightclub. The band is perched higher up on the fourth side, and music director LaTerry Butler, a worthy replacement musically for Waller himself, tickles those ivories on the club floor where the cast mingles.
And the cast is well chosen to balance vocal types and play out the little romantic or sexual storylines interpreted through the songs. Leon Pitts II and Whitney Johnson are a fine match on the teasing Honeysuckle Rose, for example (aided by Bryce’s suggestive choreography), while all three ladies in the cast (including Jnana Cheri and Ariel Blue) shine when introduced as Ladies Who Sing with the Band, performing more novelty-type numbers like Yacht Club Swing, When the Nylons Bloom Again and Cash for Your Trash. They’re all strong singers and look great in Alice Bee’s costume palette of pinks and purples, with some greens and blues mixed in.
The night I attended, I felt in the first act that the fifth member of the cast, Donald Frison, was either in weak voice or poorly miked. But his flair for dance moves and charismatic personality certainly came through on the show’s Act II drug-related songs, The Viper’s Drag and The Reefer Song, and he sounded better on those, too.
Credit goes to all the cast, but especially to Butler and Bryce—a dynamic team when it comes to making the familiar feel new. Ain’t Misbehavin’ continues through Jan. 16; for tickets call 366-1505 or go to WBTTroupe.org.