I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all.— Zora Neale Hurston

Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller

Music Theatre Louisville opened their 2011 summer season last night with the grandaddy of musical reviews Ain’t Misbehavin’. The title comes from a 1929 song written by Harlem Renaissance jazz composer Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller who wrote an important part of the soundtrack that accompanied the literary and artistic expression of ethnic pride that flowered in the decade between 1919 and the stock market crash of 1929.

When Ain’t Misbehavin’ appeared on Broadway in 1978 it was an anomaly–an African-American cast singing songs about the true African-America experience, without the stereotypes that comfort white audiences. The idea for the musical was developed by Richard Maltby, Jr. who received a 1978 Tony Award for directing the show. He shared that year’s Best Musical Tony with Murray Horwitz (book). The show also brought recognition to the late Nell Carter who won a Tony for Best Featured Actress. In addition Ain’t Misbehavin’ received the 1978 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical. A decade later the revue received a Tony Award for Best Revival.

In the decades that followed a number of popular shows have followed the path cut by Ain’t Misbehavin’, including Five Guys Named Moe, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, The Wiz, and Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk, but none have captured the ribald, bawdy, raucousness and elegant poignance imparted by Waller’s life experience. 

The Music Theatre Louisville production, directed by Rush Trowel, brings together an amazing company of local performers led on stage from the keyboard by Kentucky cultural treasure Harry Pickens. Sitting center stage with his back to most of the audience Pickens and the traditional five-piece southern band seated center stage gave voice to the beauty and depth of Waller’s music. The addition of the piano to the traditional brass bands of the south during the first decades of the last century was an important musical development, and has also been credited by some as an important factor in the popularity of jazz.

Bolstered by participants in the Governor’s School for the Arts the Kentucky Center’s Bomhard Theatre was filled nearly to capacity opening night, which may have accounted for the cast’s initial deer-in-the-headlights response. By the end of the first number, the song from which the show takes its name, the company was in full force. Making his MTL debut Greg Green is the company’s strongest all-around performer but never overshadows the ensemble or distracts from the camaraderie and bon hommie the show requires. As choreographer Green incorporates the original work of Arthur Faria (1978 Tony nominee), to create movement as exciting and fresh as it was three decades ago. The Act I dance number How Ya Baby that features Green and another MTL newcomer Tymika Prince is a show highlight. Another newcomer to MTL, Yvette Nichols, adds her gorgeous voice and wonderful sense of comic timing to this talented quintet. Veteran MTLers Tony Owens and Gayle King have been too-long gone from the stage; their textured voices and command of the repertoire, especially evident in King’s scatting, are a gift. A noted jazz singer King acts as Musical Director for the show. Tony Owens personal magnetism give him tremendous stage presence; here he manifests Waller’s joie de vivre with a devilish twinkle and knowing smile that bring just the right note to the production.

This show incorporates the realities of the African-American experience, the hopeful, the potentially destructive, the misguided, and questioning and I noticed several people with younger children fidgeting nervously during The Viper-Reefer Part 1 which includes the simulated smoking of marijuana. The number in contextually relevant and important to the show, but judge for yourself whether or not your prepubescents are ready to receive it.

Music Theatre Louisville’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ continues through July 2 in the Bomhard Theatre at the Kentucky Center for the Arts. MTL continues the season with Guys and Dolls July 15–23 and concludes with another Maltby show Big August 5–14. Subscriptions to the 2011 season are still available and you can get them by calling 502.498.2436 or online at www.MusicTheatreLouisville.com. For single tickets call the Kentucky Center box office 502.584.7777 or online www.KentuckyCenter.org.