Deceptively simple, the musical revue “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” is a stealth social snapshot of race and race relations in the great American jazz age of the 1920s and ’30s.
The current production at Albany Civic Theater may be missing the wry pinch of social comment but the audience doesn’t seem to mind. And frankly, due to the gifted cast and their infectious exuberance, neither do I.
Celebrating the music and time of Thomas “Fats” Waller, veteran stage director Richard Maltby Jr. — along with musical arranger/orchestrator Luther Henderson — crafted Waller’s tunes into something special, winning a Best Musical Tony Award in 1978 for their efforts. Perfectly capturing the heat of the Cotton Club and Harlem music scene musically, it is slyly structured, running a just-behind-the-music commentary on the time socially — allowing the music to ring with sometimes stinging subtext while still remaining immensely entertaining.
The Albany Civic cast celebrates the music with gusto and at several points in the evening nearly scorched the walls of the old theater-in-a-firehouse with their heat and happy. Usually performed with a cast of just five singers, director Michael C. Mensching ornaments the show adding four young dancers, helping to make the evening sizzle with fun.
Whether jumping and jiving together in a group, turning up the heat with a torch song, or leading a foot-stomping sing-a-long, this cast is top-notch. Each has a moment (or two, or three) to shine. Samara Miller invokes the proper diva with “Squeeze Me.” Kittenish pixie Kim Marsh simply purrs “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” And Barbara Howard knocks out “Cash for Your Trash” with just the right sass and nearly stops the show with her Act One solo — “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Fallin.’ ” I will long remember Hayes M. Fields II’s hysterical spot-on delivery of the classic “You’re Feet’s Too Big” and Leo D’Juan’s slick and crisp “How Ya Baby” and his sultry “The Viper’s Song.” It is clear that the cast loves the material and are having great fun with it.
A number of Waller’s tunes are uptempo jazz and ragtime, and often with that speed, lyrics get muddy. Not here. The singers have paid careful attention — you won’t miss a word. The quartet of dancers — Shaun Franklin, MeLoni Griffin, Neyonna Watson and Gregory Theodore Marsh (also the show’s choreographer) do a great job. Marsh’s dance solo during “The Viper’s Song” is exceptional. Brandon Jones’ music direction of the off-stage band is first rate. The only thing the band is missing is some stage time. It’s a shame they couldn’t be seen — they deserved a bow.
One of my favorite things about “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” is that it’s not until the five-minute finale you finally hear the songs for which Waller found fame — “Two Sleepy People,” “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” But it’s hardly saving the best for last — as the previous two hours have been richly rewarding — it simply frosts the cake making the evening a perfect musical meal. Albany Civic has a hit on their hands. It is too hot to be missed.