Here’s how surreal it feels to attend live theater again in 2021. In Pioneer Theatre Company’s performance of Ain’t Misbehavin’—the company’s first production in 18 months—one of the biggest cheers of the night happened when the cast first walked on stage and, all at once, took off their face masks. Yes, it was touching to celebrate a long-awaited return to the theater, but it may have pointed to how audiences’ standards have lowered since the beginning COVID-19. Now, we’re just happy to see a full human face in person.
Luckily, this show would be a success even if we weren’t all newly relieved to finally watch performers live on stage. Ain’t Misbehavin’, which debuted on Broadway in 1978, is a revue featuring the music of Fats Waller, a jazz composer and performer with hundreds of well-known songs in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. The musical shows off Waller’s remarkable versatility as a musician equally adept at comedic novelty songs, aching ballads and uptempo ragtime numbers. Ain’t Misbehavin’ includes nearly 30 of his best-known original songs and covers in its breezy 90 minute runtime, bookended by fast-moving montages with shorter snippets of his music.
The performance is mostly musical numbers, and besides brief sketches and introductions, dialogue is sparse. Still, you don’t need to be a particular fan of Waller, or even this era in American music, to find something to appreciate. I came in knowing next to nothing about Waller’s songs or career, but I found plenty to enjoy in the cast’s performances. Some of the songs are tied to news events of Waller’s era—a World War II-themed sequence includes references to wartime scrap drives in “Cash for Your Trash” and ”When the Nylons Bloom Again,” which describes a mid-1940s nylon shortage that caused riots, theft and a robust black market. However, most of the songs are remarkably timeless, and even in the most old-fashioned numbers, audiences can hear the blueprint for sounds in rock and R&B that remain influential today.
The five cast members—Tyla Collier, Tyrick Wiltez Jones, Mariah Lyttle, Terita Redd and DeMone Seraphin—are uniformly excellent. Remarkably, Redd gives a strong performance even after she was hit by a car and injured shortly before opening night. (Some of her blocking was modified.) Jones, an excellent dancer, brings panache to the choreography from director Gerry McIntyre, and Seraphin shines in the musical’s goofiest comedy songs. Equally as important, the on-stage orchestra, led by music director William Knowles, nailed each lively arrangement in the wide-ranging score. (Sadly, the musicians were obscured by glass barriers, though extra safety precautions never hurt.)
Ain’t Misbehavin’ generally keeps it PG, but many of the songs are, well, a lot naughtier than you might expect. The cast clearly revels in the songs’ rowdier moments. In “Find Out What They Like,” Lyttle and Redd milk the contrast between the old-fashioned (read: sexist) gender dynamics in the lyrics and the ribald connotations just below the surface. The show’s most outrageous song, “The Viper’s Drag,” begins with “I dreamed about a reefer 5 feet long,” and Jones’ slinky performance of the number is one of the few times the musical’s nightclub setting feels genuinely seedy.
The creative team for Ain’t Misbehavin’ favors a scaled-back, simple approach, especially compared to the flashier musicals PTC sometimes produces. At times, the actors performed with scripts nearby, though the production never felt unrehearsed. The period costumes, by Sarita Fellows, look great, and the actors make simple modifications for some numbers rather than full costume changes. Jo Winiarski’s scenic design is especially effective—the stage initially looks like an in-progress rehearsal space, but gradually added lights, curtains and other elements create a 1930s nightclub before our eyes. In the show’s best moments, the simple approach pays off. In a clear highlight the cast performs “Black and Blue,” a heartbreaking 1929 song about the personal horrors of American racism. The performers literally just sit and sing to an unadorned arrangement, but their striking harmonies are more than enough to evoke the pain in the lyrics, written by Black songwriter Andy Razaf, that sadly remain relevant almost a century later.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ will be at Pioneer Theatre Company through Sept. 25. More information and ticket sales can be found on their website. Follow more arts and entertainment stories from Salt Lake magazine.