tue 21/05/2019

Ain't Misbehavin', Southwark Playhouse review - a jazz-hot musical revue | reviews, news & interviews

Ain't Misbehavin', Southwark Playhouse review - a jazz-hot musical revue

Ain't Misbehavin', Southwark Playhouse review - a jazz-hot musical revue

Dancing, singing and plenty of swinging in this joyful tribute to Fats Waller

Ladies who sing with the band: Carly Mercedes Dyer (right) joins pianist Alex Cockle Pamela Raith

The joint is jumpin’ at Southwark Playhouse, now hosting an irresistible Fats Waller-inspired, Manhattan-set musical revue (a co-production with Colchester’s Mercury Theatre, where it opened last month). Though originating in the Seventies, this sizzling show benefits from a fresh infusion of talent, with actor Tyrone Huntley making his directorial debut, and Strictly Come Dancing pro Oti Mabuse making hers as a musical theatre choreographer.

Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr. supply the book, but this early jukebox musical is blessedly free of a story awkwardly pegged to existing songs. Instead, it’s a free-flowing cabaret, with miniature dramas blossoming in each number, and a welcome spotlight given to the great jazz pianist Thomas “Fats” Waller and the African-American Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s-30s – experimentation with new styles of music and dance, like swing.

Ain't Misbehavin', Southwark PlayhouseHuntley’s staging honours that focus, placing most of the band onstage in an almost vertical stand and even foregrounding MD/pianist Alex Cockle (pictured right with Landi Oshinowo) via a moving platform. An exceptional use of the Southwark’s thrust space immerses viewers in this groovy Manhattan nightclub, with the performers using every inch of dancefloor and sometimes slinking into the audience.

Those after a Fats Waller biography may feel short-changed, but several numbers do explain elements of his music – such as the influential “stride style” and the syncopated rhythms. Otherwise, the sheer range on display is the most vivid illustration of his talents, from comic sketches to bluesy torch songs and foot-tapping, finger-snapping showstoppers. Even his war effort number, “Cash for Your Trash”, is a winner.

A charismatic, triple-threat cast works immaculately as an ensemble, with Huntley and Mabuse building in telling character moments to keep the songs compelling. Simple touches like having Renée Lamb observe a canoodling couple before singing “Squeeze Me” infuses that number with sensual longing, while in “How Ya Baby”, Carly Mercedes Dyer initially resists Wayne Robinson’s advances, signals her interest by mirroring his dance steps, and then challenges him with increasingly competitive spins and high kicks.

Group number “Jitterbug Waltz” has a lyrical quality in Mabuse’s American smooth-style waltz choreography, but with the addition of Landi Oshinowo’s stumbling and martini-guzzling, it also takes on that early-hours, end of the party feeling – simultaneously dreamy and absurd. Evocative, too, is “Honeysuckle Rose”, with Oshinowo vocally and physically luxuriating in its simmering desire. There’s also joyful comedy via Dyer’s giddy “Yacht Club Swing”, Lamb’s diva-tastic ode to nylons, and Adrian Hansel really going to town with “Your Feet’s Too Big”, plus audience singalong with “Fat and Greasy”.Ain't Misbehavin', Southwark PlayhouseBut the production pulls back when needed: Dyer delivers her big love song with appealing simplicity, while Robinson (pictured above) steams up the place as a sinuous spliff-toter in “The Viper’s Drag” – a fabulous showcase for his sleek strutting and honeyed crooning, paired with the wanton wail of the trumpet (Elias Jordan Atkinson). “Black and Blue” strikes a more serious note in its examination of race, made more powerful by the stark staging and stirring harmonies.

Throughout, there’s a loose liberation that fits the subject, Mabuse’s movement emerging organically and mixing different styles – from explosive Charleston to grounded soft-shoe shuffle, effervescent swing, bouncy jitterbug, and even a hint of gospel worship. Strong formation work connects the group, while giving each room to express, and there’s judicious use of impactful tricks like cartwheels. The only bum note in characterisation is the inevitable catfights between the women.

Takis supplies exceedingly covetable flapper fashions and a dazzling gold-and-chrome set, with the reflective metallic floor adding another dimension to the performance; it’s like tumbling into a saxophone. This is one party you’ll never want to leave.

@mkmswain

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