Joyful ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ a fitting tribute to jazz master

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” — 4 stars

The first Chicago-area production of the Fats Waller revue “Ain’t Misbehavin’” I saw was in 2008 at the Goodman Theatre, co-starring the inimitable E. Faye Butler.

By then, Butler had already earned five of her nine Joseph Jefferson Awards and was about 25 years into a career that spans four decades to date. Butler added directing to her resume over the last few years and it’s in that capacity that she returns to Drury Lane Theatre to helm its jubilant revival of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” the jukebox homage to seminal 1920s and 1930s jazz pianist/composer/entertainer Thomas “Fats” Waller, the stride piano virtuoso whose compositions number in the hundreds and include such standards as “Honeysuckle Rose,” “This Joint is Jumpin’,” “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” and “Handful of Keys.”

Conceived by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr., the 1978 revue consists of 30 swinging, utterly infectious tunes. Many were composed by Waller and lyricist Andy Razaf with fellow composer Harry Brooks; others were composed by other songwriters but made famous by Waller.

Understudy Micah Mixon, left, joins Drury Lane Theatre's revival of “Ain't Misbehavin’,” which stars James T. Lane, second from left, Alexis J. Roston, Lorenzo Rush Jr. and Alanna Lovely. Courtesy of Justin Barbin

Butler sets the show in 1939 at a swanky nightspot in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, conjured by set designer Andrew Boyce and lighting designer Lee Fiskness. The movable bandstand located center stage is flanked by two giant palm trees. (A nod perhaps to The Palm Tavern, a southside club Butler references in her program notes). A red brick wall serves as the backdrop, a pair of chandeliers hang overhead and the whole set is bathed in Fiskness’ atmospheric lighting. Costume designer McKinley Johnson adds a sumptuous touch with embellished jewel tones for the women and shades of gray for the men in the first act; and cream-colored, fur-accented finery for everyone in the second.

Sharriese Y. Hamilton stars in Drury Lane Theatre's revival of the Fats Waller jukebox revue “Ain't Misbehavin’.” Courtesy of Joe Mazza, Brave Lux

Watching “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” I was struck by how deftly Butler balances comedy, innuendo and pathos and how intimate the show feels despite being staged in a 900+-seat theater. I was also struck by her superb cast of singer/actors, which includes Sharriese Y. Hamilton, James T. Lane, Alanna Lovely, Lorenzo Rush Jr. and Alexis J. Roston, who co-starred alongside Butler in Goodman’s 2008 production.

A suave seductive Lorenzo Rush Jr. performs Fats Waller's “Honeysuckle Rose” in the jukebox tuner “Ain't Misbehavin’” running through Aug. 18 at Drury Lane Theatre. Courtesy of Justin Barbin

And they’re not just pretty singers. All of them perform choreographer MzFlo Walker-Harris’ tap and soft shoe routines with panache, and Lane and Lovely team up for an especially engaging deconstructed jitterbug.

The cast is accompanied by an onstage quintet led by music director/conductor/pianist William Foster McDaniel with bassist Yosef Ben Israel, drummer Rodney Harper, clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Dudley Owens and trumpeter/flugelhorn player Fernando Pullum. The prolonged applause the quintet earned for their musical interlude at the top of the second act was well-deserved.

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” has no plot, but it makes a point. The first act, which begins with the cheeky titular tune and concludes with the rollicking “This Joint is Jumpin’” (accompanied by a police raid) is mostly upbeat with a jitterbug waltz, a salute to the piano and a sendup of female singers.

Alanna Lovely and James T. Lane sing a tune and cut a rug in Drury Lane Theatre's terrific revival of “Ain't Misbehavin’.” Courtesy of Justin Barbin

The second act is weightier. “Loungin’ at the Waldorf” skewers society folks who “like jazz but in small doses.” “Find Out What They Like” is a deliciously risqué duet in which Roston and Hamilton encourage women to cater to their men. “The Viper’s Drag” is about addiction, and the torchy “Mean to Me” describes emotional abuse. And the penultimate number, the gorgeously sung “Black and Blue,” is a moving lament on racism.

It stopped the show.

• • •

Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, (630) 530-0111,

Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday; 1:30 and 7 p.m. Thursday; 7 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 18

Tickets: Start at $52.95, dinner-theater packages available

Running time: About 2 hours, 5 minutes, with intermission

Parking: Free in the adjacent lot

Rating: For teens and older, some sexual innuendo

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