TUTS’ ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Hobby Center is a riotous joy

Ashley Tamar Davis and David LaMarr in “Ain’t Misbehavin” from Theater Under the Stars

Photo: Melissa Taylor

Oh, to be a fly on the wall at great Harlem Renaissance nightclubs like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom. “Ain’t Misbehavin'” is as close as you can get, although there’s (almost) none of the billowing clouds of cigar and cigarette smoke.

Onstage at the Hobby Center through October 2, Theater Under the Stars’ new production of the 1978 cabaret-style revue is a relentless romp that revisits the music of jazz great Thomas “Fats” Waller. Its 30 or so songs fly by at hummingbird pace, and if not all of them land, then enough for the more memorable ones to evaporate as soon as the next hot lick hits the air.

Conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz, Ain’t Misbehavin’ was produced by the Manhattan Theater Club on the Upper East Side and quickly made the leap to Broadway, where it won three Tony Awards and helped launch the careers of Cast members including Nell Carter, Irene Cara and André DeShields. As a forerunner of the modern jukebox musical, it is also a throwback to the vaudeville palaces where Waller honed his skills. A pivotal figure in the development of jazz (Count Basie was one of his students), the pianist was as well known for his witty chatter as his ivory tickling talent. Imagine a powerful combination of Groucho Marx and Jelly Roll Morton.

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Set in a well-appointed jazz-age salon, the stage is bathed in tones of wood and gold, the production of TUTS is a historical piece brought to life thanks to Monique L. Midgette’s direction and the talented ensemble of Ashley Támar Davis, David LaMarr, Paris Bennett , Will Mann and Melrose Johnson. (Oddly, the playbill lists character names for the cast, but they use each other’s real names on stage. Needless to say, there’s no plot to speak of.)

The sizzling chemistry of the cast and the lithe choreography of Courtney D. Jones light up the rollicking ensemble numbers, including “Handful of Keys”, “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” and “The Joint Is Jumpin'”. One almost expects Duke Ellington or Ethel Waters to stroll in to sit with the band. Dressed to the last detail in smart suits and pastel dresses, including the extras seated at tables at the foot of the stage—George T. Mitchell made the costumes—the performers strut around the stage and bounce to Waller’s upbeat, playful tunes.

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“Ain’t Misbehavin'” leaves plenty of room for notable solo twists: Johnson’s flirty vocals on “Squeeze Me”; Lamar is slick on ‘T Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do; Bennett’s aching blues “Mean to Me” from the former “American Idol” finalist. Houston native former prince protege Davis unveiled gospel-powered whistles on I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed. As a duo, Melrose and LaMarr fought enthusiastically on “That Ain’t Right”; Bennett and Johnson made Find Out What They Like a lark in pajamas; and Mann and LaMarr’s “The Ladies Who Sing With the Band” set the Roaring Twenties roaring back.

A handful of numbers stood out: Mann’s hilarious facial expressions and sly remarks on “Your Feet’s Too Big” and LaMarr’s tour de force on “The Viper’s Drag,” a blurry ode to Reefer in which he twirls around the stage for minutes while swaying a Joint the size of a banana. The deadly serious anti-segregation song “Black and Blue,” a notable departure from the show’s otherwise nonstop frivolity, showcased the cast’s seamless harmonies while striking a solemn, almost existential note. It was sobering and captivating at the same time.

None of this would have happened without the efforts of the production’s true MVP, Music Director Phillip Hall. His exuberant piano kept the performers engaged while his six-piece band – Sabri Anderson and Horace Alexander Young – sat at the reeds; trumpeter Rob White; trombonist Jarvis Hooper; bassist AJ Moyler; and drummer Vernon Daniels – kept the riffs sharp and the tempos tight. Her boundless good humor keeps “Ain’t Misbehavin'” frothing and oh-so-funny.

Chris Gray is a Galveston-based author.

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