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TUTS' 'Ain't Misbehavin' at Hobby Center is a riotous joy

Houston Chronicle 9/23/2022 Chris Gray, Correspondent

Oh, to be a fly on the wall at the great Harlem Renaissance nightspots such as the Cotton Club and Savoy Ballroom. “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is as close as we’re likely to get, though it lacks the billowing clouds of cigar and cigarette smoke (almost).

Onstage at the Hobby Center through Oct. 2, Theatre Under the Stars’ new production of the 1978 cabaret-style revue is a relentlessly toe-tapping romp that revisits the music of jazz great Thomas “Fats” Waller. Its 30-ish songs fly by at a hummingbird’s pace, and if not all of them land, enough do that the more forgettable ones evaporate as soon as the next hot lick hits the air.

Conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was staged by the Manhattan Theatre Club on the Upper East Side and quickly jumped to Broadway, where it won three Tony Awards and helped boost the careers of cast members including Nell Carter, Irene Cara, and André DeShields. A precursor of the modern jukebox musical, it’s also a throwback to the vaudeville palaces where Waller honed his chops. The pianist is a foundational figure in the development of jazz (Count Basie was among his pupils), and was as well-known for his wisecracking patter as his ivory-tickling talents. Think a potent combination of Groucho Marx and Jelly Roll Morton.

Set at a well-appointed Jazz Age saloon, the stage awash in wooden and golden hues, TUTS’ production is a period piece that pulses with 2022 energy thanks to Monique L. Midgette’s direction and the talented ensemble of Ashley Támar Davis, David LaMarr, Paris Bennett, Will Mann, and Melrose Johnson. (Curiously, the Playbill lists character names for the performers, but they use each other’s real names onstage. Needless to say, there is no plot to speak of.)

The cast’s crackling chemistry and Courtney D. Jones’ limber choreography lights up the frisky ensemble numbers, among them “Handful of Keys,” “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around,” and “The Joint Is Jumpin’.” You almost expect Duke Ellington or Ethel Waters to come strolling in to sit in with it the band. Dressed to the nines in natty suits and pastel dresses, including the extras seated at tables at the foot of the stage — George T. Mitchell did the costumes — the performers strut and swan about the stage, hopped up on Waller’s jaunty, playful tunes.

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” leaves plenty of room for notable solo turns: Johnson’s coquettish crooning on “Squeeze Me”; Lamar slick as an eel on “’T Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do”; former “American Idol” finalist Bennett’s aching blues “Mean to Me.” Houston native and former Prince protege Davis revealed gospel-powered pipes on “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed.” In pairs, Melrose and LaMarr sparred with gusto on “That Ain’t Right”; Bennett and Johnson made “Find Out What They Like” a pajama-clad lark; and Mann and LaMarr’s “The Ladies Who Sing With the Band” put the roaring back in Roaring Twenties.

A handful of numbers stood apart: Mann’s hilarious expressions and sly asides on “Your Feet’s Too Big” and LaMarr’s tour de force on “The Viper’s Drag,” a hazy ode to reefer in which he mugs about the stage for several minutes while cradling a joint the size of a banana. The dead-serious anti-segregation song “Black and Blue,” a striking departure from the show’s otherwise nonstop frivolity, showcased the cast’s seamless harmonies as it struck a solemn, almost existential note. It was sobering and riveting all at once.

None of this would have come to pass without the efforts of the production’s real MVP, music director Phillip Hall. His ebullient piano kept the performers on point, while his six-piece band — Sabri Anderson and Horace Alexander Young on reeds; trumpeter Rob White; trombonist Jarvis Hooper; bassist A.J. Moyler; and drummer Vernon Daniels — kept the riffs spicy and tempos tight. Their boundless high spirits keep “Ain’t Misbehavin’” frothy and oh so fun. 

Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.

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