Book: Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr.
Music: Fats Waller
Director: Tyrone Huntley
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
There are not many first-time directors and first-time choreographers who could make their debuts in such roles at the Southwark Playhouse, one of the top tier of off-West End fringe venues.
Name recognition surely plays a small part: the director is Tyrone Huntley, Olivier nominated for his role as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and one of London’s brightest musical theatre talents. The choreographer is Oti Mabuse, until now best known as a professional on Strictly Come Dancing and a judge – sorry, ‘dance captain’ – on The Greatest Dancer… But the celebrity name factor can only go so far: and what really shines through in Ain’t Misbehavin’s the magic combination of hard work and talent, both offstage and on.
Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr’s revue of Fats Waller songs from the gold age of American jazz made its West End debut 40 years ago after taking Broadway by storm. This Mercury Theatre Colchester and Tamasha Theatre Company co-production illustrates just why it’s such a joyous show that is over-ripe for a full-scale revival.
With no narrative structure, the cast of five barrel through some 30 Waller songs, concentrating on highlighting the underlying story within each. Huntley creates scenarios for each song that often find some extra nuance in the lyrics: a plaintive love song becomes a torch song of unrequited love, or a woman delighted by a romantic serenade discovers her beau’s attentions were directed elsewhere.
More often, the playful exuberance of Waller’s stride piano work is reflected in a comedic interpretation of the song. Landi Oshinowo and Renée Lamb are often set up as rivals in love and on the dance floor, and along with Carly Mercedes Dyer form a formidable trio of women that manage to transcend that overused cliché.
It takes a lot to transform numbers which as Find Out what They Like, ostensibly about how to satisfy men by doing exactly what they want, and transform it into a song of feminist strength: but the cast ensure that one is in no doubt who is in control here.
The stand-out performance, if there could be such a thing, in Act I is Dyer’s rendition of Yacht Club Swing, played as by a nightclub dancer whose skills in singing and dancing are hilariously questionable.
Nothing could be further from the truth, of course: and together with Adrian Hansel and Wayne Robinson, the three women form a quintet of performers whose talent shines through in a production that feels like a party from start to finish. And every time the show seems to be focussing too much on slapstick comedy, the show’s structure pulls back to a torch song, preventing the show from falling too far into self-parody.
Matters are helped immensely by Mabuse’s confidently ebullient choreography, ranging from exuberant Charleston to more thoughtful soft shoe work. Together with the gorgeous thrust stage – Takis’s design turning the Playhouse’s large space into the gilt-edged glamour of a Harlem speakeasy – the effect throws one into the era from the first note from Alex Cockle’s piano.
The combined charms of the exemplary cast, and an explosive debut from Huntley and Mabuse in their new careers, makes Ain’t Misbehavin’an unmissable production. Southwark Playhouse is one joint that is truly jumping.
Runs until June 1 2019 | Image: Pamela Raith