Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773. Book by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr. Music by Thomas "Fats" Waller and others. Directed by Brenda Didier. With Robin da Silva, Sharriese Hamilton, Donterrio Johnson, Lina Wass, Lorenzo Rush Jr. 2hrs 15mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Megan Powell
After trudging through what seemed like 18 weeks’ worth of snow to Stage 773, it was sheer pleasure to watch smiles ripple across faces in the audience as the first, delectable note of Ain’t Misbehavin’ was sung on a deep winter’s night. The titular song opens the long-running, Tony Award–winning 1978 megahit, staged by Porchlight in a sincere and sublime production. The revue of music by or connected to Fats Waller, the self-described “285 pounds of jam, jive and everything,” spans the spectacular jazz pianist and composer’s brief career, from the Harlem Renaissance 1920s to World War II. Creators Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr. have shrewdly arranged the 30 or so songs to evoke a real sense of time and place. While real troubles may be outside the door, this party’s raucous, vibrant music can, as the Langston Hughes poem “Juke Box Love Song” describes, “take Harlem’s heartbeat, make a drumbeat.”
And the Porchlight cast really makes us feel that beat. Through joyous singing, galvanizing dancing and feisty attitude, every song becomes a world that the five knockout performers inhabit, backed by bass, drums, horns, and especially the virtuosic stride (Harlem jazz style) piano-playing by conductor Austin Cook. The show is outfitted a bit inconsistently, marked by a couple of odd costume choices, but any shaky production values are superceded by the glorious voices and sinuous songs.
The breadth of Waller’s work is showcased, from feel-good standards that hopped in Harlem (“Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’’) to primmer, patriotic WWII numbers (“Cash for Your Trash”). Waller’s back catalog gets a good workout, too, especially during the show’s spirited second act, when the songs describe the fun and follies of the wee morning hours. The lithe Donterrio Johnson slitheringly elaborates how he “dreamed about a reefer five feet long” in “The Viper’s Drag,” while Robin da Silva purely emotes the vagaries of love in the double-meaning “Mean To Me.” The show stops (one of many times) with the complaint that “Your Feet’s Too Big” from Lorenzo Rush Jr., who slyly epitomizes Waller in the show, and Sharriese Hamilton and Lina Wass hit notes to die for several times over. There was a moment of stunning, shared silence between performers and audience at the end of the mesmerizing, all-cast number “Black and Blue” that honestly did stop the show, until an audience member called out, “You’re living, baby!” On that cold night in Chicago, we really were in the heartbeat of Harlem.