Portland Center Stage’s new show, Ain’t Misbehavin’, barely gives the audience a moment to catch its breath.
This fast-paced and colorful production is a musical review of the songs of Thomas “Fats” Waller–a child of the Harlem Renaissance who embraced the era where he came of age, prolifically wrote music about life in Harlem, played in all the best places, partied, ate and drank into the wee hours, and was dead by the age of 40.
It was a fast-lived life, and Ain’t Misbehavin’ reflects the passion of the man behind the music. Fats Waller lived on a grand scale, and Chris Coleman directs this production on a grand scale, to the point that it reaches the level of American opera. Each song is a vignette, the vignettes move into one another, and the result is the story of life in a specific place at a specific time–Harlem in the 1930s. The show makes excellent use of the Gerding Theatre’s revolving stage and allows the scenes to meld seamlessly from one to the other. The set was a work of art–thank you Tony Cisek and crew!
The voices of the 11 cast members hailing from New York, Atlanta, and our own rich trove of local talent, added the next layer– beautiful, unique, compelling–complementing each other as they wove stories of laugher, tears, betrayal, and general high-jinks. The joint-jumpin’ speed of this production energizes and entertains, and reminds us of when the music of a special time in American history and the people who made it began to reach out from its roots and delight a larger audience. Yet still there remained that harsh reality, that elephant in the room, as the song “Black and Blue” reminds us.
Fasten your seatbelts for Ain’t Misbehavin’. Get lost in the music and dancing and genuine humor, and those delicious sherbet-colored dresses on the women. Be prepared to laugh out loud! “The true spirit of jazz,” wrote J.A. Rogers describing the Harlem Renaissance in 1925, “is a joyous revolution from convention, custom, authority, boredom, even sorrow–from everything that would confine the soul of man and hinder its riding free on the air.” That about summarizes the show, folks. It runs through November 29 at Portland Center Stage.
(Photo by Patrick Weishampel.)