The cast of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” presents lively renditions of dozens of songs. Photo by Aaron Flacke

Seismologists may be scratching their heads in the Portland area for the rest of August. No worry, though, it’s just that the Maine State Music Theatre and Portland Stage Company have opened a new co-production and, as one of the show’s songs promises, “The Joint Is Jumpin’.”

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” presents lively renditions of dozens of songs composed by or associated with Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller (1904-43). The 1978 musical revue by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz also brings audiences back, as director E. Faye Butler emphasizes in her notes, to the Harlem Renaissance, a period when African American artists found new inspiration.

In a night club set designed by Anita Stewart, five talented performers sing, dance and act a little in an infectious non-stop celebration of Waller’s often witty and risqué but also very sophisticated music. His singular talent helped form an important link between the exuberance of early jazz and the complexities of modernism, as the show confirms.

A four-piece onstage band under the direction of Roderick Demmings Jr. (who also adds vigorous stride piano to the mix) backs Jonathan Adriel, Dwelvan David, Qiana McNary, Renelle Nicole and La’Nette Wallace in songs that reflect mostly the ups, while not ignoring the downs, of the period. The costumes by Kathleen P. Brown, lighting by Gregg Carville and sound design by Travis Wright complete the welcoming feel of the show, as does the presence of a few audience members sitting at tables onstage.

The highlights are many. David and Wallace were early favorites on opening night for their vocal agility on a stylized take of the Waller classic “Honeysuckle Rose.” McNary then went all-in, slowly wringing every bit of the blues out of “Squeeze Me.”

All five performers took to the floor for “The Jitterbug Waltz,” with Wallace revealing her strong comedic gifts as an irrepressible odd-woman-out.  Not to be outdone, Nicole became a sketchy radio singer with the “Yacht Club Blues” and later took a musical oath that she was “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.”

Adriel moved the second act in a euphoric direction with “The Viper’s Drag,” a tune about the “pleasures” of marijuana that had him descending from the stage to entice the crowd. With slow jazz backing and the performer’s sinuous dance moves, this number did create a giggly buzz among audience members.

David scored on the hilarious “Your Feet’s Too Big” and later reminded the crowd of Waller’s talents in the popular vein with “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” McNary and Wallace offered an alternately sweet and bawdy duet on “Find Out What They Like,” a number that featured touches of unison choreography by Kenny Ingram, who throughout helped set the show in motion with tap, swing and other period stylings.

A somber moment near the close had the performers seated and illuminated by footlights-only to intone a gospel-inflected take on the lament “Black and Blue.” The piece confirmed that, despite the renaissance underway, there was still much pain being felt. It was a beautiful choral tribute to Waller and to the larger context of this important and highly entertaining show.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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