Chicago’s Goodman Theatre Sings Lively New Tune With Fats Waller’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’

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HollywoodChicago.com Comedy/Tragedy Rating: 4.0/5.0
Rating: 4.0/5.0

CHICAGO – If you were to visit Harlem in the 1920s, you might have found yourself in a nightclub exploding with hot keys, cold booze and swingin’ dances about as far from the stylings of “So You Think You Can Dance” as possible.

The likes of Duke Ellington and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong were striking up the band (or the trumpet) at The Cotton Club, Connie’s Inn and Small’s Paradise.

It was the Harlem Renaissance, which was a time of new cultural pride and creation for the African-American community that would go on to influence almost all areas of music, art and dance for years to come.

Left to right in the Chicago production of Ain't Misbehavin': Alexis Rogers, Parrish Collier, E. Faye Butler, John Steven Crowley and Lina Kernan
Left to right in “Ain’t Misbehavin’”: Alexis Rogers, Parrish Collier, E. Faye Butler, John Steven Crowley and Lina Kernan.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren

But now you don’t need a time machine (or an old record player) to relive those times. That toe-tappin’ music is kicking it up in a major way downtown at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a musical revue of the tunes of one of the most inspiring musicians of all time: Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller. Having influenced such musical immortals as George Gershwin, Louis Armstrong, Count Bassie and Thelonious Monk, Waller’s music was truly revolutionary. This show strives to do nothing but celebrate just that.

The Chicago production of Ain't Misbehavin', which is based on an idea by Murray Horowitz and Richard Maltby Jr. with music by Fats Waller, is directed by Chuck Smith
The Chicago production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which is based on an idea by Murray Horowitz and Richard Maltby Jr. with music by Fats Waller, is directed by Chuck Smith.
Image design credit: Kelly Rickert

With a book by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr., “Ain’t Misbehavin’” originally opened on Broadway in 1978 and went on to win several Tony Awards that year (including best musical).

The original run saw its way through 1,604 wildly successful performances and positioned itself as the predecessor of the current plethora of jukebox musicals on the Great White Way.

But don’t go in expecting the “Jersey Boys”. Even with this new mounting, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is still a musical revue and not a full-throated musical.

Director Chuck Smith knows it, too. Smith’s aspirations are small and simple yet fully realized. The eight-piece band proffers a sound of a big swing orchestra that will truly knock your socks off.

The set is nothing short of eye candy. Brilliantly and simplistically designed to evoke a nightclub ambiance, it transports you back to a 1920s Harlem swing club.

The only thing missing seems to be that the Albert proscenium theatre is made up of seat numbers instead of cocktail tables. But what truly drives this production – like must incarcerations of the show – is its stellar cast.

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” employs only five cast members to carry almost 30 of Waller’s most famous tunes including “Honeysuckle Rose,” “This Joint is Jumpin’” and “The Jitterbug Waltz”. E. Faye Butler brilliantly leads the cast, which also includes Alexis Rogers, Parrish Collier, Lina Kernan and John Steven Crowley.

Lina Kernan in the Chicago production of Ain't Misbehavin'
Lina Kernan in the Chicago production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’”.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren

Butler glides through Waller’s numbers effortlessly. She flawlessly transcends between head and chest voice and offers a gripping vibrato to her belt. Her starring number is the second act’s “Mean to Me” where she not only shows off the versatility of her vocal prowess but of her emotional intelligence and range as well.

Lina Kernan’s sensually smooth crooning and Alexis Rogers’ lively dance and comedic skills combine with Butler’s talents to make nothing short of a powerhouse female trio.

Unfortunately for the production, there is a discrepancy between the musical competency of the females and the males of the cast. John Steven Crowley’s vocals for the most part are appeasing to the ear drums, but with a throaty placement that sounds granulated and subdued, his musicianship is more suited for a piano bar than for a large auditorium.

Alexis Rogers (left) and Parrish Collier (right) in the Chicago production of Ain't Misbehavin'
Alexis Rogers (left) and Parrish Collier (right) in the Chicago production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’”.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren

He also tends to favor speak singing for many of Waller’s tunes, which would have benefited from more of a legato style.

Parrish Collier brings a terrific exuberance to each of his numbers. His rendition of “The Viper’s Drag” is absolutely entrancing. Though he clearly has more than ample dance training, Collier’s vocal chops leave a great deal to be desired. He fares well in the group harmonies yet he is unable to match the others in solo pieces.

Based on the Harlem stride piano movement, Fats Waller was known as the “King of Stride”. Stride was a style of piano in which the left hand plays a constant beat (or rhythm) while the right hand plays the melody. This balance of anchor and tune is just as much a requirement of jazz as it is a staged musical revue. In this sense, though, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” gravely misses the beat.

The book is filled with many frustrating ambiguities. It’s not clear who the characters are, what their placement is in the piece or if they are even characters to begin with. There is very little time between each number, which results in a lack of development and chronology. The only scenes we are given consist merely of silly jokes that range from the mildly vulgar to full-on slapstick.

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Revues often run into this problem. Whereas there is a sensible order to writing music to express a story, it is often difficult to come up with a story for preexisting music. In this vein, Smith’s directing serves up more problems than solutions.

He tends to treat each individual number with its own independence such that each song rings so autonomous that you wonder what’s holding everything together.

But despite these setbacks, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a true gem. With legendary music, terrific performers and tight choreography, it’s sure to be a summer favorite. Grab a date, sit back, relax and get ready for a sweet night on the town.

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” runs every day of the week except for Mondays at various times through Aug. 3, 2008 at the Goodman Theatre at 170 N. Dearborn St. in Chicago. Tickets range from $23 to $78 and can be purchased here or via phone at 312-443-3800.


For a complete listing of all shows and reviews in Chicago, visit our partner TheatreInChicago.com. For half-price Chicago theater tickets, visit our partner Goldstar.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Alissa Norby

By ALISSA NORBY
Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
alissa@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2008 Alissa Norby, HollywoodChicago.com

Zachary's picture

Ain't MisBe'Hatin

Alissa, I saw the same show and noticed some of the same flaws. Nonetheless, I feel that it is a spectacular production. It is a unique tribute to the life of Fats Waller, more than just a revival of the original production.
Since I am a former Goodman Theatre employee, some would think I am biased. But actually, I approached this show as a visitor with no experience in critiquing plays.
The vocal performances were meant to be a little scratchy. If the singers had been operatic in their delivery, one might have complained of them overdoing it. The raw vocals actually made me feel at home. It helped the characters to show their human side.
In light of how black music has changed in 60 years, this play is a nod to more than just Fats Waller. It is an ode to Billye Holiday, Lena Horne, Nancy Wilson, and all of the other greats.
It’s a great show- with a human side to it.

Alissa Norby's picture

Re: Ain't Misbe'Hatin

Zachary,

First, thank you very much for your response. I really appreciated such a well-articulated analysis of both the show and my review.

I completely agree with you that the current mounting of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at the Goodman is great, and I apologize if that message was unclear in my writing. And although I cannot accurately compare it to the original Broadway production as I did not see it, I was there at the Goodman that night with a colleague of mine who had seen both the original off-Broadway and Broadway productions. We discussed the history of the musical revue and how it has morphed into the Jukebox musical of today. We both found that with this production of ‘Misbehavin’, the “human” side of the story was slightly pushed to the back-burner. But I am sure you would agree that this genre of show is completely dependent on personal taste in how one likes his or her story executed.

In terms of the vocal quality, I could not agree more that performers like Crowley are right in their “scratchy” stylings. Also, I apologize if I did not explain what I meant by legato in my article. I was using the term not in regard to operatic scores, but in the original definition of that term, which means to tie the notes together.

Although “rough” is the appropriate style, I didn’t find that the timbre equated with vocal strength. The stylings were right, but I still did not hear enough support behind many of the males’ notes. This was emphasized by the fact that the females were so strong vocally. But again, everyone has different tastes in musicals and music in general, and when I review shows I have to keep in mind that the performers are expected to do this up to 8x per week. I have witnessed many great Broadway performers (who have worked mostly pop-rock productions) strain their vocal chords because of this favor of style over technique. Therefore perhaps I am more sensitive than I have realized to the question of whether or not performers are able to keep up vocally with this type of grinding schedule.

I must thank you again for your comments. I am very grateful of them, and I am glad you enjoyed the show. It really is good. I hope to receive more feedback from you in the future.

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