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North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre has turned their stage into a 1930s speakeasy of the kind found in the Uptown streets of Harlem during the age of the Harlem Renaissance. It is exactly the kind of place where Thomas "Fats" Waller spent his time playing the music he wrote to entertain his fellow New Yorkers. Ain't Misbehavin', a revue of thirty of Waller's most popular tunes, is currently playing at NRACT, and, as the music tells us, "This Joint is Jumpin'."
Director Liz Grimes Droessler found herself with an embarrassment of riches when auditioning singers for the show. So many people turned out to audition that she found it impossible to cast only five actors for the show; she therefore double-cast the revue and split the run between the casts, playing each on alternate nights. On Friday night I saw the "Blue" team perform, which alternates with the "Green" team through the end of the run.
The Blue team consists of Nell (Tina Morris-Anderson), Charlain (Chanda Branch), Armelia (Aya Wallace), Ken (Juan Isler), and Andre (Spencer Jenkins). These five singer-dancers bring Fats Waller's music to life on stage and seem to be having a particularly good time doing it. Their performances were infectious, and they got the audience very much into what was happening on stage. From the very first note of music, the songs kept coming, flowing neatly from one to the next without interruption. Two sets of 15 songs each seemed to fly by, and the show was over before we knew it. We had a whole lot of fun while it was happening!
The cast is backed by a quartet of musicians behind a black scrim upstage center. Led by pianist Craig Johnson, there were additional keyboards by Ronzel Bell, with David West on guitar and Vince Moss on drums. A total of only nine musicians took the stage last night, but they sounded like so many more, that the whole theater was filled with Waller's music.
The men seemed to have the most fun on stage, mugging at the gals and generally making wisecracks throughout the performance. Isler in particular did this exceptionally well, as well as taking on the persona of Waller himself several times during the performance. Isler's partner in crime, Spencer Jenkins, is a slim and dapper gent who seemed to get a real gas out of the ladies he was working with; his laughter, loud and brash, was impossible to ignore. This came vividly through in Act II when Jenkins performed the tune "The Viper's Drag," which is unabashedly about marijuana. "I dreamed of a reefer, five feet long," Jenkins sang, and his resultant "high" was most convincing! Isler was called upon to play his composer, Waller, mostly for the comic tunes such as "Your Feets Too Big," and "Fat and Greasy," a not-at-all complimentary description of a very large man whose hands are greasy from eating with his fingers.
The ladies, on the other hand, were able to give some very fine renditions of torch songs and he-done-her-wrong songs that were superbly handled. Each of the gals got her own time to shine, as well as perform many songs either as backup or as a full company member. These latter tunes were neatly staged dance routines, choreographed by the director, and this cast became a finely-tuned machine, executing some pretty smooth moves adroitly and with aplomb. Solos were sprinkled liberally throughout; Nell began with "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling," backed by the rest of the cast, as well as her signature "Mean to Me," a particularly fine torch song in Act II. Each gal had her own signature color: Nell's was blue, Charlain's was green, and Armelia's was red. This was readily apparent at the top of Act II when all the ladies sported their own unique furs, coded to their own individual colors.
Armelia used her color terrifically well in "When the Nylons Bloom Again," and she gave us a fine example of ensemble singing when she joined the other two for "Off-time," a trio the ladies handled exceptionally well. Charlain has an excellent solo in "Keeping Out of Mischief" and also plays the vamp in "Lounging at the Waldorf," a not-too-subtle company number that pokes fun at the Downtown Society Set. An audience participation number came in Act II, when all five piled on the derision at the man who was "Fat and Greasy."
This quintet of excellently talented singers gave us one heck of a show, and the audience was on its feet before the last note fell. Well timed and finely controlled humor, superbly handled interactions, and a general feeling of infectious good humor made this show a real hit. It was an excellent showing of the songs that Fats Waller was known for, and each and every one of these performers did him proud. It was a night to remember, and one I was particularly glad to share.
No doubt, the Green team will take the stage with the same level of professionalism and skill that we saw opening night. Pay particularly close attention to the interactions of the cast members. Director Droessler has made these individual singers into a well-knit quintet, and their exchanges are truly entertaining to watch. So, go, already. As Mr. Waller was fond of saying, "One never knows, does one?"
Ain’t Misbehavin’ continues through Sunday, March 25. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.