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‘Misbehavin’ at the Music Hall Jazz Cafe

By |2009-12-31T09:00:00-05:00December 31st, 2009|Entertainment|

By Jenn McKee

In many ways, “Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical Revue” seems a perfect fit for the Jazz Cafe at Detroit’s Music Hall. The show features singers performing Waller’s songs in period dress (’20s and ’30s era, that is), as if they were playing in a club in the days of the Harlem Renaissance.
And Wallers’ songs, with lyrics by various artists, each tell a kind of story. But the central difficulty of the show – with a book by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr. – always concerns getting a production to hit the elusive sweet spot that exists between a theatrical performance and a straight-up concert.
The fact that the show has a natural tendency toward the latter is one reason why the Jazz Cafe works well for many of the show’s numbers. (There’s a wholly satisfying buffet dinner served before each performance, by the way.) However, in other moments, the venue’s theatrical limitations become only too apparent – most notably, when singers make their way out to the audience and are shrouded in darkness. (And because the performers sing among the crowd in darkness during the opening number, the show has a bit of a bumpy, confusing start.)
This was resolved for one number, “The Viper’s Drag,” performed with charming flair by Taurean Hogan. Thanks to a handheld spotlight, Hogan was able to perform the entire song in the middle of the crowd, which offered a nice contrast; but having someone work a handheld spot throughout the show seems just a tad impractical.
More generally, the first half of the show, on opening night, occasionally felt uneven and breathless. There were highlights – guest performer’s Shiron Denise’s “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” was gorgeous, and the ensemble’s “‘T Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness” and “Joint is Jumpin'” were both irresistible – but there were also disjointedly camped-up takes on “Yacht Club Swing” and “When the Nylons Bloom Again,” and the notoriously difficult “Handful of Keys” sounded a little off-pitch in the highest register.
For the show’s second half, the cast donned formal attire, yet ironically, they then seemed far more at ease with the material. The first act’s occasional self-consciousness was gone, replaced by a sharpened focus on bluesy, intimate, and often-cheeky Waller numbers.
“Mean to Me” was quietly powerful (I can’t identify who sang the song due to a program that simply lists cast members’ names); Denise’s fierce rendition of “You Must be Losin’ Your Mind” was played in rebuke to “Your Feet’s Too Big”; “Find Out What They Like” was very well-sung and deliciously fun; “Fat and Greasy” got the crowd clapping and singing with the performers; and the gorgeous harmonies of “Black and Blue” – Waller’s poignant song about race – was performed with such subtlety, stillness and skill that it took my breath away.
Of course, this is partly due to the work of musical director Jeremy Ryan Mossman, who, for the most part, has been blessed with strong vocal performers to work with. And as Fats Waller, Alvin Waddles is downright terrific on the piano, backed by Peter McAllister on drums and Ralph Armstrong on double bass.
Ultimately, director Michael J. Barnes has staged a pretty good production of “Misbehavin'” that may yet improve as he and his cast work out some kinks that are specific to the venue. And whether you can always see the performers or not, you could do much worse than hearing Fats Waller tunes sung well over the course of an evening.

Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical Revue
Jazz Cafe at Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, 350 Madison St., Detroit. Every last Tuesday of the month beginning in January. $47 (which includes dinner). 313-887-8500.

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Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.