Exhilarating “Misbehavin'” at Crossroads

Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a “juke box musical,” a dialogue-free concert of songs written or recorded by Thomas “Fats” Waller. First produced on Broadway in 1978, the show has been revived in countless venues since. So how do you bring something fresh to such a show? Crossroads Theatre Company found the way.

Even without spoken lines, Ain’t Misbehavin’ illustrates the social history of the Fats Waller era as well as his music. Born in 1904 and dead too soon in 1943, Waller longed to be taken seriously as a composer of concert music. Held back by racial barriers as well as his comic persona, he instead left a jazz and blues legacy that influenced Count Basie (who studied with Fats), Teddy Wilson, Dave Brubeck and others. Not too shabby.

Crossroads Theatre's "Ain't Misbehavin'" five. (Photo: Sherry Rubel)

Crossroads has honored Fats’s legacy by engaging the services of a director/choreographer whose participation in the original show remains legendary. With this production, Andre De Shields is “passing the Misbehavin’ mantle from one generation to the next” with a fresh, re-energized take on the show.

Five extraordinarily talented – and limber – singers, backed by seven dynamite musicians, present 30 numbers that Fats Waller wrote or recorded, on a stage setting so intimate that everyone in the audience feels like a patron in a 1930s Harlem nightclub. The songs alternately swing or tug at the emotions, as the sparkling cast becomes as fully developed as characters in any spoken play. The result is exhilarating.

The show opens with an exuberant take on the title song, which sets the tone for the two-hour celebration that follows. And what follows includes “’T Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I do,” sung with sly wit by Tyrone Davis, Jr.; “Honeysuckle Rose,” a honey of a duet by Jacob Ming-Trent and Rheaume Crenshaw; and “Squeeze Me,” by a most squeezable Johmaalya Adelekan.

Zurin Villanueva leads the ensemble in the “Handful of Keys” number, a musical instruction manual on the intricacies of “stride,” Fats’s piano technique. Later, her gorgeous take on “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” is almost operatic.

And the hits keep on comin’: the three women ramp up the sexiness with “Find Out What They Like (and how they like it)” and the two men cross the line into un-PC territory (amusingly so) on “Fat and Greasy.” And when all five sing together? Oh, my; “The Joint Is Jumpin’” does, and them vocalizing as band instruments near the end is a barn-burner.

No discussion of Misbehavin’ would be complete without mentioning a particular musical statement that puts the show in perspective.  “Black and Blue,” with haunting lyrics by Fats’s frequent collaborator Andy Razaf, is a virtual treatise on the color-based bias of the 1930s. It’s a stark reminder that racism keeps on misbehavin’. The Crossroads five sing it beautifully.

I saw the original Broadway production on my birthday in 1980, with an excellent replacement cast (it ran nearly four years). A jazz fan since forever, I was thrilled. Among others seen since, Two River Theater Company’s was outstanding, but this De Shields-anointed production breathes new life into Ain’t Misbehavin’. Don’t miss your chance to see it – with the original cast.

Through October 23 at Crossroads Theatre Company, New Brunswick, NJ. Performances Thurs & Fri at 8pm; Sat at 3 & 8pm; Sun at 3pm. For tickets ($50): 732-545-8100 or online at www.CrossroadsTheatreCompany.org (At only $50, it’s like them paying you.)

Professional, Regional