By Martin F. Kohn
It’s been around since 1978, so “Ain’t Misbehavin'” ain’t no longer “The new Fats Waller Musical Show,” but Tim Edward Rhoze’s staging at Performance Network just might reclaim that subtitle. Without altering the number of performers (five) or the order of the songs – why should he? – Rhoze has indeed come up with something new.
He’s taken what is essentially a concert and given it context, placing it in an after-hours Harlem nightclub where performers who’ve finished their gigs elsewhere gather to meet, greet and sing what they really want to sing. Set designer Daniel C. Walker obliges Rhoze with a cozy, convincing cabaret, with interior brick walls and candles on the tables, one flight down from the sidewalk outside.
Folks who have seen “Ain’t Misbehavin'” before will appreciate the freshening; newbies will forever think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
At first there’s only a pianist (musical director R. MacKenzie Lewis) to accompany the singers, but pretty soon other musicians – a drummer, a bassist and a saxophonist – straggle down the stairs, and before long the joint is jumpin’ just like the song says. Come in, cats, and check your hats. Speaking of which, Network patrons can now actually check their hats (and coats) instead of hanging them on a communal rack in the outer lobby.
Smart as they are, Rhoze’s ideas about the show would amount to window dressing without strong performances, but he gets them in profusion from singers James Bowen, Jennifer Cole, K Edmonds, Darrian Ford and Kron Moore and musicians Brad Faryniarz, Billy Harrington, Chris Morelli and the aforementioned Lewis.
It’s almost unfair to single anyone out, but a standout among standouts is Ford, a charismatic jazz tenor and clearly the best dancer of the group.
As for the songs, their titles alone should convince you of the show’s excellence: “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Your Feet’s Too Big,” “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” “Two Sleepy People,” “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and the previously cited “The Joint is Jumpin,” to name just a few.
My favorite, though, would have to be the ensemble-sung “Handful of Keys,” originally a Waller piano solo without words. Show creators Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz put lyrics to it that brilliantly and exuberantly describe stride piano, a style of playing that Thomas Waller (1904-1943) perfected.
Fats Waller may not be around to enjoy the results of this across-the-board collaboration at Performance Network, but we are. Lucky us.
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Thursday-Sunday through Jan. 1; no performances Thanksgiving and Christmas Days. $30-$46; $75 New Year’s Eve. 734-663-0681. http://www.performancenetwork.org