Where: Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through March 9
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Porchlight Music Theatre is cannily celebrating Black History Month with Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr.’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” the 1978 smash musical revue devoted to Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller, the prolific entertainer who composed more than 400 songs before dying at 39 in December, 1943.
And what a lively celebration it is! Directed and choreographed by Brenda Didier, the five performers are in high-octane mode and perpetual motion from the time they open with the title number until the end of a second-act medley of Waller’s greatest hits, among them “I’m Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” Practically the only time they slow down is for the oh-so-melancholy “Black and Blue,” the beautifully harmonized ensemble number that always brings a lump to my throat.
The conceit — that we’re at an after-hours party in a Harlem basement in the winter of 1944 — comes across, deliberately or not, in the raucous, rough-edged nature of the whole evening. I could wish for a little less choreography, more control, and lower volume, but maybe that’s partly because I was sitting in the front row. Tucked on either side of Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s simple set, the talented combo — Chris Thigpen on bass, Michael Weatherspoon on drums, Shaun Johnson on trumpet, Rajiv Halim on sax — is comparatively unobtrusive, though conductor/pianist Austin Cook is close to center stage most of the time, enthusiastically attacking the ivories as a stand-in for Waller.
The diverse repertoire evokes the era with everything from “Lounging at the Waldorf” to “When the Nylons Bloom Again,” arguably reveals a streak of self-hatred in “Your Feet’s Too Big” and “Fat and Greasy” and includes the requisite raunchy songs that depend on sexual double entendre as well as more straightforward blues and jazz pieces and a mini tutorial on stride piano. One of my favorites is “The Viper’s Drag,” performed to a T by Donterrio Johnson, the obvious dancer in the ensemble.
The others are Robin Da Silva, Sharriese Hamilton, Lina Wass and Lorenzo Rush, Jr., who bears a real resemblance to Waller, whose picture is on the wall. Each has his or her fine moments, though the performances are a little uneven. So are the technical elements, especially Bill Morey’s costume design, which suits the men fairly well but saddles the women with some frightfully unflattering frocks and gowns.
So, should you go see this “Ain’t Misbehavin’”? Well, if you like Waller’s music and don’t expect a slick production, it’s not a bad way to warm up from the cold.