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Friday, September 21, 2018

Sassy Ain’t Misbehavin’ Swings into Toby’s

The cast of 'Ain't Misbehavin''  Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography

Step into Toby’s time machine and visit Lennox Avenue in Harlem during the 1920’s and 1930’s. You will experience the famous Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom, rent parties, and an assortment of smoke-filled honky-tonk bars along that stretch where the conversation is loud; the slide piano-playing jazz, Dixieland, ragtime, and swing music manage to compete with the din; and the hard partying never seems to end. 

It was the world that the legendary composer, jazz pianist, comedian and singer Thomas “Fats” Waller lived in. This accomplished artist lived for only 39 years before succumbing to pneumonia, but he clearly left his mark on American culture and was a noteworthy contributor to the Harlem Renaissance.  #hocoarts

The world of Fats Waller, with its laughter and partying mixed in with some introspection generated by the social realities of the time, is brought to life in an energetic production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ playing at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia.

With some 30 songs performed by a talented hard-working cast of five under the direction of Monique Midgette, choreographed by Shalyce Hemby, and supported by Ross Scott Rawlings and his seven-piece orchestra, this musical revue pays homage to black musicians of the era with Waller’s prints all over it.

He either composed, collaborated or recorded these songs—some of which had become standards—including the title song “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint is Jumping,” Black and Blue,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

Ain’t Misbehavin’, which captured three Tony Awards in 1978 and launched the career of Nell Carter, features a book penned by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., with the music created by various composers and lyricists as arranged and orchestrated by Luther Henderson.  

Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins neatly sets the atmosphere at Toby’s with a host of old-time chandeliers suspended from the ceiling and a major ballroom chandelier centered above the round stage.  There is also a mirror ball emitting lights around the theater to simulate a dance hall scene. A piano, emblematic of Waller’s iconic instrument, appears often as does a portable platform from which several numbers are performed.

Intermittent black and white projections are displayed on screens around the theater to add context to the moments, and the use of fog machines to denote cigarette and cigar smoke in the clubs is an effective touch.  All the atmospherics have been enhanced by Lynn Joslin's effective lighting design. 

If you’re not familiar with Ain’t Misbehavin’ (I last saw the show 30 years ago when I was just a toddler), as a musical revue, the production consists of song after song—high tempo and sultry ballads in the mix—with no plot, no chronology, nothing really tying the songs together other than Fats Waller’s involvement.  It’s a pleasant, sit back and relax toe-tapping experience that takes you back to an important part of American musical culture.

Kelli Blackwell,  Bryan Jeffrey, Kadejah Oné, Tobias A. Young and
Kanysha Williams
Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Yet, it’s not a static concert where the numbers are merely sung. The songs come right at you from the get-go with hardly a pause except for intermission. There are lots of movement, dancing and action taking place on different parts of the stage and on a stairway. Ms. Midgette and Ms. Hemby ably take into account the in-the-round format and the cast performs accordingly.

The five talented artists performing are Kadejah Oné, Kelli Blackwell, Kanysha Williams, Tobias A. Young and Bryan Jeffrey. Since the program lists them in the song list by their first names only, I will also refer to them in that way.

They vigorously perform with sass, attitude and playfulness as they are featured in solos, duets, trios and as a company. Individually, the performers shine and collectively they blend beautifully. The joy and warmth exhibited by these performers tell the audience they are truly having a great time onstage.

Dancing adroitly to the swing and jazz numbers, they are in constant movement throughout. It should be noted that for a large man, Tobias acquits himself very well nimbly dancing in such numbers.

"The joy and warmth exhibited by these performers tell the audience they are truly having a great time onstage."

The cast, attired in colorful period costumes by Janine Sunday, are dressed to the nines, which replicate classic Harlem Renaissance style. For most of the show, Kadejah, Kelli and Kanysha  are wearing solid colored dresses—blue, purple and red, respectively; Tobias is in a three-piece suit and Bryan in a snazzy jacket and slacks combo with a pink tie.

Furs for the women are also adorned. Yes, they were not only acceptable during that era, they were desired.

At times, however, the sound became problematic the night this production was reviewed forcing the vocalists to project more than they probably wanted to.  This led to the blurring of some of the lyrics and causing an occasional issue with pitch. Hopefully, this will be rectified as the run progresses.

Nonetheless, the cast members deliver. “Honeysuckle Rose” performed by Tobias and Kadejah is strong.  So is the fine dancing number “Handful of Keys” with Kanysha and the company. Kelli does well in her solo “Squeeze Me.”

Bryan and Tobias utilize the steps in the well-performed “The Ladies Who Sing with the Band.” Kanysha’s solo of “Yacht Club Swing” is quite fine.  Kadesha excels in “Cash for Trash.”  The company performs ably in the lively dance number “The Joint is Jumpin’” closing out the first act.

Bryan’s comical performance of “Viper’s Drag” at a rent party is superb. Tobias shows off his vocal prowess in his solo “Your Feet’s Too Big.” The duo hooks up neatly in a well-executed song and dance number “Fat and Greasy.” For their duet, Kelli and Kadejah are excellent in “Find Out What They Like.”

The non-stop party takes a more somber tone just before the finale in the company number “Black and Blue”. While the projection screens show images of “Whites Only” signs to reflect the Jim Crow segregationist era, the group movingly performs the poignant song and is a highlight for me.

Because Ain’t Misbehavin’ focuses on a specific slice of American music, it may not appeal to everybody as other Toby’s productions generally do. However, it is an important time for the resurgence of black music from the 20’s to the 40’s and a significant part of our history.

Whether you enjoy Fats Waller’s music or not, you will appreciate an exceptionally talented cast who gives their all to entertain you.  Plus there’s always Toby’s luscious buffet.

Running time. Approximately two hours with an intermission.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ runs through November 4 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311 or visiting online

Thomas "Fats" Waller

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