Fort Worth — Despite Brecht’s idea that theater should be more like sports, with the audience vocally participating, most theater is meant simply to be observed. Some shows, though, don’t seem made for that “sit quietly and applaud when it’s over” theater tradition. And when the music of Ain’t Misbehavin’ is delighting and riling audiences at Jubilee Theatre, it’s all but impossible not to think about bustin’ a move or two.
The show is named for the 1929 song hit by Thomas “Fats” Waller (he wrote it in with a couple of collaborators), and showcases music by Waller and other songwriters from the Harlem Renaissance. Ain’t Misbehavin’ is one of the rare jukebox musicals that works simply because it’s so much fun. A lot depends on the cast: if you have a good one, it’s hard to go wrong.
Waller’s music is easy to like, and he covered a wide variety of subjects that go beyond common themes of love and loss. Songs like “Yacht Club Swing” to “Lounging at the Waldorf” to “Fat and Greasy” provoke toe tapping, and are done with the proper energy.
Director Akin Babatundé has assembled a talented cast that includes Major Attaway, Brandon Burrell, Chimberly Carter Byrom, Patricia Hill and Ebony Marshall-Oliver backed up by Jubilee’s music director Geno Young.
Each performer gets a chance to shine—and does. Attaway is nearly a dead ringer for Waller himself, and has a voice that reveals every ounce of feeling in the man’s music. Burrell just oozes energy. He plays his character big, yet strikes a perfect balance with the other singers during the ensemble musical numbers. His stage presence is undeniable.
The women are just as impressive, especially Marshall-Oliver, who like Burrell catches and wields an electric energy that reaches out from the stage and forces the audience to participate in the action. Interestingly, she’s in the role originated by Charlayne Woodard for the first production in 1978—and Marshall-Oliver has played Woodard herself in two autobiographical one-woman shows.
There’s not a lot more to say about Ain’t Misbehavin’—first because it’s a simple, straighforward theatrical concept, and second, because it’s perfectly executed in this Jubilee production. The cast makes Waller come to life, building a palpable energy in the room that had the audience completely immersed in the great songwriter’s world. In fact, calling the show (which was conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horowitz) Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a kind of reverse psychology: absolutely everything about the show simply incites the audience to break theatrical etiquette and openly react to the music.
It’s a show perfectly suited to the kind of atmospheric night clubs or cabarets Waller played in. But if it has to be in a theater, Jubilee sure fills the bill. As Fats once wrote, “The Joint is Jumpin’”!