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A Joyous Misbehavin'

by Jules Becker
Thursday Jun 2, 2022

From left: Lovely Hoffman, Sheree Marcelle, Anthony Pires Jr., Christina Jones, and Jackson Jirard in "Ain't Misbehavin'" at Central Square Theater.Nile Scott Studios
From left: Lovely Hoffman, Sheree Marcelle, Anthony Pires Jr., Christina Jones, and Jackson Jirard in "Ain't Misbehavin'" at Central Square Theater.Nile Scott Studios  

Ain't Misbehavin', Nora Theatre at Central Square Theater, Front Porch Arts Collective and Greater Boston Stage Company. Seen at Central Square Theater; June 9-26 at GBSC.

Thomas Wright Waller accomplished a lot as both a composer and performer during his far too short life (39, from pneumonia in 1943). Best known as "Fats," the multi-talented musician (piano, organ and other instruments) established the Harlem Stride piano style, wrote well over 400 songs and influenced such modern jazz pianists as Errol Garner and Count Basie. The internationally busy performer was also known to flavor his performances with humor. Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz beautifully captured Waller's world in their snappy tribute show "Ain't Misbehavin'-The Fats Waller Musical." Now a kind of theater triumvirate—Nora Theatre, The Front Porch Arts Collective and the Greater Boston Stage Company —is bringing fresh and high-stepping expression to the deserving 1978 Tony Award winner.

Under the smart guidance of Front Porch co-producing artistic director Maurice Emmanuel Parent—himself a gifted actor (Norton and IRNE Awards) and multi-talent, the current revival beautifully evokes the jazzy ambience of this revue. Designer Elisabetta Polito has dressed the two men in sharp period suits and the three women in colorful evening wear. At the same time art deco band identifiers precede the upstage musicians, with the piano at stage left. Large wall murals by Harlem Renaissance painter Archibald Motley Jr. encase the cabaret setting with vivid images of enthusiastic aficionados.

The talented quintet are equally enthusiastic—both on the ample selection of Waller classics and songs not written by Waller but recorded by him (all thoroughly identified in the playbill song list). Anthony Pires, Jr. captures the trademark Waller humor that enriches many numbers and makes the most of the devilishly suggestive Andy Razaf lyrics on "Honeysuckle Rose." Lovely Hoffman brings plaintive drama to "Mean to Me." Big-voiced Sheree Marcelle (who alternates with Becky Bass) delivers "That Ain't Right" with riveting forcefulness. Kira Sarai Helper (who sometimes substitutes for Christina Jones) proves very expressive on "I've Got My Fingers Crossed" in the fast-paced five-number finale.

Remarkably agile Jackson Jirard amazes with the stylish and quick moves of a Bojangles and even mid-air splits. His sardonic phrasing and wonderful elusiveness make "The Viper's Drag" an eye-catching stand-out and stamps this charismatic performer as a large talent with a big future. Parent's snappy choreography (with co-choreography by Ilyse Robbins) keeps the performers' moves as expressive as their renditions. Throughout the versatile band members—under pianist-conductor Catherine Stornetta (subbing for co-music directors David Freeman Coleman and Dan Rodriguez)—capture the diverse demands of both Waller's repertoire and the other material he recorded.

If the Waller musical largely comes across as light-hearted and free-wheeling—particularly the strongly choreographed first act-closing winner "The Joint Is Jumpin'," the second act-finale closer "Black and Blue" serves as a timely reminder of the pain that African-Americans suffered (and in sometimes subtler ways continue to suffer) at the hands of racists. The first-rate quintet builds this iconic number from a kind of subdued sadness to a powerfully full-voiced harmony.

Parent, in his playbill notes, points to this show as a rarity asking performers "to embody joy and freedom onstage in response to the racial oppression that songs like 'Black and Blue' point to." This collaborative revival of "Ain't Misbehavin" so joyously celebrates Waller's genius that audiences will want to dance in their seats.