Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Ain't Misbehavin'
July 21, 2008
By Christopher Murray

This beloved revue of Fats Waller's immensely appealing songbook was performed originally in 1978 on Broadway by a company of three women and two men. In this revival by Harlem Repertory Theatre, the show has been expanded to a cast of almost 20 enthusiastic young performers, directed and choreographed by Artistic Director Keith Lee Grant. Harlem Rep makes clear its association with the City College of New York's Department of Theatre and Speech but still purports to be a professional theatre. On the basis of this production, despite flashes of potential, it must be said the quality remains strictly amateur.

That being said, it's moving to hear Waller's feisty, flirtatious, and flamboyant tunes sung just across St. Nicholas Park from where the composer grew up at 107 West 134th St. And despite a curtain speech that alerted the audience that there is no plot in the show, each number encapsulates a dramatic world of its own, full of delightful detail and dramatic potential.

Several of the performers make the most of the opportunity, notably guest artist Jimmy Mike assaying 1934's "The Viper Rag" with much style and charm, the honey-voiced Danyel Fulton delivering 1929's "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling," and the powerhouse Alexandra Bernard and sassy Nathaly Lopez teaming up on 1929's "Find Out What They Like."

The barnlike but elegant Aaron Davis Hall is decorated by set designer Marcel Torres as a cabaret space with a banner emblazoned "Cotton Club" and a hanging triptych of images of Waller with his trademark impish grin and wagging eyebrows. But the supporting cast of over a dozen performers struggles to fill the space in dark patches of lighting by Brian Aldous and Jason Boyd and uneven amplification by Kane Chaing.

However, the seven-piece band, led by pianist and musical director Andre Danek, provides a strong platform for some lovely harmonies by the cast — in particular evidence during 1929's "Off-Time" — and ample enjoyment in the sheer joy of singing Waller's insouciant lyrics and unforgettable melodies.

Presented by Harlem Repertory Theatre at Aaron Davis Hall, 150 Convent Ave., NYC. July 18-Sept 14. Schedule varies. (212) 650-5960.

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