Stepping from Chicago's icy streets into the cozy confines of Stage 773 on a recent frigid Friday, I found myself in the middle of a party. For that's exactly what Porchlight Music Theatre's rousing revival of "Ain't Misbehavin' " is.
Porchlight's production of this affectionate tribute to jazz pianist and composer Thomas "Fats" Waller -- master of the stride piano, pillar of the Harlem Renaissance and composer of "Honeysuckle Rose," "Handful of Keys" and the titular tune -- is as ebullient as the man who inspired it.
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"Ain't Misbehavin'"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: Porchlight Music Theatre Company at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. (773) 327-5252 or porchlightmusictheatre.org
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through March 9, also 1 p.m. March 6
Running time: Two hours, with intermission
Parking: $10 valet or paid street parking available
Rating: For teens and older, slightly mature content
Conceived by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., the 1978 revue consists of 30 songs, mostly by Waller (with Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf), plus some gems covered by the Harlem-born entertainer. Sly, funny, sexy and poignant, "Ain't Misbehavin'" is an altogether splendid homage wonderfully realized by music director Jaret Landon and director/choreographer Brenda Didier, of Lincolnshire.
Talk about a cold weather cure. Didier's fast-moving, toe-tapping production -- with its high-stepping period choreography -- sizzles thanks to five lively, likable singer/actors and a top-drawer quintet whose members contribute equally to the show's success. Led by kinetic conductor/pianist Austin Cook, bassist Chris Thigpen, drummer Michael Weatherspoon, trumpeter Shaun Johnson and saxophonist Rajiv Halim, the music is bold but never overbearing. The musical interlude that begins Act II is all them. And well-deserved.
The time is winter, 1944. The place is an after-hours party in a Harlem basement. Robin DaSilva is the seen-it-all diva with a voice like warm molasses who is as engaging belting out the jolly "Cash for Your Trash" as she is expressing the ambivalence that underscores the haunting "Mean to Me."
Sharriese Hamilton is the saucy up-and-comer unafraid to indulge in a little mischief and a lot of jitterbugging. Lina Wass, of Hoffman Estates, is the chanteuse who deftly delivers torch songs and blues ballads. Her duet with DaSilva on "Find Out What They Like" -- about how a woman can satisfy her man -- is a hoot.
The agile Donterrio Johnson plays the sly charmer, who infuses the seductive "Viper's Drag" with a hint of menace. The endlessly personable Lorenzo Rush Jr. of West Chicago, is the gregarious, sexy charmer (and Waller stand-in) who nearly brings down the house with his outsize take on "Your Feet's Too Big." He and Johnson are also responsible for another comedic highlight, the deliciously raucous duet "Fat and Greasy."
In fact, the production's highlights are almost too numerous to mention. There's the exuberant "Handful of Keys," where singers mimic their instrumentalist counterparts; the elegant, luscious-sounding "Lounging at the Waldorf" and the infectious "This Joint is Jumpin'," which concludes Act I.
While up-tempo tunes dominate the show, its most moving moment comes courtesy of the transfixing, beautifully performed "(What Did I Do to be So) Black and Blue," a provocative lament on racism and the wounds it inflicts.
This is one of the most intimate moments in a show that, even in a 147-seat theater, still feels intimate. And inclusive. Didier and company manage to make all of us feel part of the show. So much so that several audience members, at the performance I attended, felt compelled to express their appreciation out loud. I understand the impulse. When the music's infectious and the joint is jumpin', folks can't help but join in.