Review - Ain't Misbehavin' at Southwark Playhouse
It is clear looking at director Tyrone Huntley’s impressive acting CV where he has found inspiration for this glittering production. He has performed in some of the best-loved shows on stage including Dreamgirls and Hairspray, but Ain’t Misbehavin’ is his first time in the director’s chair. Even so, there is nothing amateurish about this production.
Pitched as “The Fats Waller Musical”, this is not so much a musical as a celebration of the songs of the iconic jazz musician. Rather like ABBA's Mamma Mia musical, Waller’s discography contains sufficiently diverse song titles to be strung into a loose narrative. However, like Mamma Mia, this is convincing only some of the time. (You try finding a logical segue into a song entitled "Your Feet’s Too Big".) Whilst there is the suggestion of a vague storyline, there isn’t any real commitment to characters or plot. This show is overwhelmingly about the music and the dancing.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ takes the audience on a journey back to early twentieth-century Harlem with performances of over 30 of Waller’s most popular songs, including "Honeysuckle Rose", ‘"itterbug Waltz", and of course the eponymous hit. Accompanied by a live band led by Alex Cockle, the cast delivers stunning, pitch-perfect performances, maintaining unwavering vocals throughout two hours of fairly strenuous choreography – a delightful homage to the Jazz Age by Strictly Come Dancing professional Oti Mabuse.
The cast is outstanding; true triple-threats with voices that belong on the West End stage. But thank goodness they’re here instead, at the intimate Southwark Playhouse, for it is the nuances of their facial expressions and their spontaneous, barely audible ad-libs that convey their easy-going charm.
Renée Lamb gives the stand-out performance of the show. Unbelievably, she only stepped onto the professional theatre scene last year, but her talent fizzes through to the very tips of every one of her flapper gown tassels. Carly Mercedes Dyer gives an impressive vocal performance in "Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now", and hits improbable notes in "Yacht Club Swing". The two male leads are also excellent. Wayne Robinson gives an irresistible, sultry performance in "The Viper’s Drag", and Adrian Hamsel’s masterful solo in "Honeysuckle Rose" is later beautifully embellished by Landi Oshinowo’s incredible vocals.
The show’s designer takis has the Midas touch, creating a truly glittering set: gold chandeliers, gold music stands, gold staircase. There is even a gold floor across which the piano spins playfully, pianist and all.
This production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ is ridiculously good fun, and is utterly transportive to the great age of jazz. By the time the second act begins, there is a sense that a more defined narrative would give the show some welcome direction. However, what the show does it does brilliantly, and the cast is without fault. Whether or not you were a Fats Waller fan when you arrived, you’re sure to be by the time you leave.
Photo credit: Pamela Raith