“One never knows, do one?”
Well, African-American pianist/composer Fats Waller’s oft-used quip was on my mind as rain and lightning punctuated Tuesday’s weather: Would there be an outdoors opening night performance of “Ain’t Misbehavin,’ ” conceived by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr.?
Mirabile dictu — there was! And the talented forces at Playhouse Stage Company delivered once again.
Of course, Waller’s comment was not meteorological in origin. No, he was more interested in the shenanigans (often on the down low) that characterized people’s love lives. Most of the 30 songs in this cabaret-style show are laments and howls and purrs about the vicissitudes of romance, with a big dose of humor to prevent too much self-pity.
“One never knows, do one?”
The cast of five — Dashira Cortes, Hayes M. Fields II, Brandon Jones, Joyel Kaleel, Mariah Lyttle — does know how to deliver each number with just the right amount of sass and shine. Behind every lyric is a wink, conveyed with a shrug of the butt or a confident strut. True love? Hmmm. Enduring love? Not so much, especially when there’s another good-lookin’ gal or guy just beyond your dance partner’s shoulder.
Ain’t misbehavin’? Surely you jest.
As with all revues, the director must find the tone of each number in the arc of the show as a whole. Jean-Remy Monnay, making his Playhouse debut, has done exactly that, with an assist from Diaka Kaba-Hill. Fast/slow, poignant/hysterical, ensemble/solo, charged/still — the pace is just right. Every song is a mini-story.
The upstage band, under Brian Axford’s direction, plays the music by Waller and others Waller featured in his performances with abandon. Axford’s keyboard work would have made Waller proud: joyous, rhythmic, nuanced (listen to the “conversation” between Cortes and the piano in “Squeeze Me”).
Visually, the production is stunning, thanks to bright period costumes by Hollie Miller Woolridge, hair styles by Bobbie Zlotnik, set by Timothy Clow, and lighting by Alena Samoray. The choreography by Ashley-Simone Kirchner makes effective use of the whole stage, Tommy Rosati’s sound design, Melissa Anderson’s props, Dennis Strange’s tech direction, and Anders Goodwin’s stage management complete the fine tech team work.
And the entire production is under the supervision of Owen Smith, who began his association with Park Playhouse 24 years ago as a student participant.
In a show of such diverse numbers, there are bound to be highlights. One is Jones’s slithering rendition of “The Viper’s Drag,” a paean (or cautionary tale?) to weed. Fields mines the humor in “Your Feet’s Too Big” and elsewhere uses his grin to impish ends. Cortes brilliantly deconstructs “Mean to Me,” word by word and emotion by emotion. Lyttle delivers “Keepin’ Out of Mischief” inside out, revealing a layer to the familiar song that makes it a real dramatic moment. And Kaleel, sparkling in her green dress, is every number’s good luck charm: alone or in an ensemble, her bright smile, powerhouse voice, dance moves, and energy elevate whatever’s happening.
And, of course, Waller’s song from 1929, “Black and Blue,” appears suddenly and forcefully in Act II, just before a concluding quintet of upbeat numbers. A statement about race 90 years ago, it remains, with its heartbreaking lyrics and tight jazz/blues harmonies, a statement about race today.
About some things, one never knows, but I know that you should see this production.
‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ ’
WHERE: Park Playhouse, Albany Medical Center Stage, Washington Park, Albany
WHEN: Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., through July 24
HOW MUCH: Free stadium seating; reserved seating: $33-$23
MORE INFO: 518-434-0776, or playhousestage.org