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Event Review

Ain’t Misbehavin’  is a vibrant, vocal feast

Face Off shines spotlight on music of Fats Waller

In Face Off Theatre’s production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ — a Tony Award-winning tribute to the music and times of Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller — five performers take on an evening of 31 songs from the time of the Harlem Renaissance in the early 20th century.

Credited for laying the groundwork for modern jazz piano, Waller was just 39 when he died in 1943, yet copyrighted more than 400 songs — music that lives on in countless film scores and recordings by artists including Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt and Sarah Vaughan.  

Starring Jay Duquette, Bri Edgerton, Oba Ellis, Dayanna Price and Kayla Wager, the show kicks off with its namesake tune “Ain’t Misbehavin,” followed soon after by “Honeysuckle Rose,” both of which were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Ellis’s lead on ‘Rose’ sets a sexy tone for the night, as he shimmies his bulk and lays a particularly emphatic delivery on the word honeysuckle

The appreciative, near sellout crowd — some at 11 cafe tables with snacks and drinks adding to the nightclub feel — cheered for every wink and booty shake. Backed by a band visible behind the stage, the performers led with vibrant energy, rolling out 15 songs in just 40 minutes. Music director and pianist Monica Washington Padula does a great job with the relentless pace and variety of piano styles.  

First act highlights included Wager’s solo on “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling,” her heart-shaped face like a young Aretha Franklin. A duet between Duquette and Price on “How Ya Baby,” showed off choreography by Kourtney Ketterhagen that made great use of a swirling purse swung mightily by Ms. Price. The show’s women are spotlighted throughout the first act, each with a distinctive character and style. Though some harmonies and high notes land better than others, the three deliver stylish and sassy renditions with Edgerton showing off a gift for physical comedy. 

Written at a time when Manhattan nightclubs like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom catered to high society with honky-tonk pianists playing brand-new music called swing, Waller’s music is filled with drinking, jealousy, more drinking, a little sadness and a lot of fun.

The show’s second act brings the ensemble back in its Sunday best, as opposed to the nightclub sparkle of Act I, for “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around.” Their fur coats are discarded as Ellis and his broad smile launch into “Lounging at the Waldorf,” which pokes fun at high society. He chats up those in the front row before singing ‘We’re so proud, here we are at the Waldorf where folks sit around all day.’ 

Nearly too relaxed to wink in the “Viper’s Drag,” Duquette and the ensemble light up a little — okay, a lot — perhaps in an alley behind the club, enjoying a wind-down as he sways and sings “I’m the king of everything/Got to get high before I sing.” 

Whenever Duquette and Ellis do a song together, you can’t look away. The pair team up in “Fat and Greasy,” inspiring the audience to clap and sing along as they make fun of an unpleasant compatriot. Ellis owns the stage in “Your Feet’s Too Big” robustly played for laughs with his warm baritone. 

Price (with a Lisa Bonet glamor) and Wager each do well with solo ballads, performing them mostly seated (allowing them the breath they need), Wager singing “Mean to Me” and Price singing “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” 

The evening’s pulse slows as the cast comes back together for “Black and Blue.” All seated, with low lighting, their voices blend beautifully as they share a somber mood, singing  “What did I do to be so black and blue?… Why was I born?” It was sad and powerful. 

No way was the crowd going to be left in tears, though. The pace accelerated quickly for the last six songs, nearly a medley, with the familiar “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” Price shows off a loose, graceful manner with her dancing in “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed,” and everyone has a ball miming instruments in the exuberant closer, “Honeysuckle Band.”  

Directed by Ryan Singleton, Ain’t Misbehavin’ continues through June 23, with Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. at the Epic Center in downtown Kalamazoo. The production is supported by Uplift Kalamazoo. Tickets begin at $5, and are offered on a pay-what-you-wish basis. Free parking is available in the Epic Center garage, and concessions are available. 

This review supported by The Arts Coverage Initiative, a collaboration between Encore and the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo and funded by a grant from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation.

Katie Houston

Katie Houston is a Kalamazoo-based writer, communications coach, and marketing consultant.

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