Saturday, May 20, 2023

"Ain't Misbehavin'" by Stage North at the Capri Theater

For just their third production, Stage North (based in the Capri Theater in North Minneapolis) is bringing us the Fats Waller musical revue Ain't Misbehavin'. Despite the fact that it won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1978 (in between Annie and Sweeney Todd), it's rarely done anymore, and perhaps best known as the show for which Nell Carter won a Tony (her costar AndrĂ© De Shields would have to wait 40 years for his). It's similar in structure to Smokey Joe's Cafe, which has seen a resurgence in recent years, so it's about time we were able to celebrate the music of early 20th century jazz composer/pianist Fats Waller. Even if you don't think you know his music, these early jazz standards will sound familiar. This show is truly a showcase for the five talented performers, and a celebration of the Harlem jazz style that Fats helped to create.

This would be a perfect 80-minute no intermission musical, if not for the intermission. While the ending of Act I that leads into the intermission is fun and entertaining, I would prefer that they just continued the show and the music. The musical has no plot or characters, but each of the 20 or so songs is a little scene or story unto itself. In solos, pairs, or as a group, the five performers tell the story of each song, some funny, some flirty, some sad. There's even a section in which a couple of performers are introduced and pretend to sing badly, which the others cringe at. There are mini stories of relationships beginning or ending, and some songs that are just downright silly. It's a nice mix, and director Austene Van balances the differing tones of the piece nicely, as one song moves smoothly to the next.

Cornisha Garmon, Kevin Brown Jr., Angela Steward,
Len Jones, and Kia Brown (photo courtesy of Stage North)
Music Director Sanford Moore leads the awesome on-stage four-piece band, playing piano and interacting with the cast a bit. And this cast! Most of the performers were previously unfamiliar to me, but all are fantastic. Rising #TCTheater star Kevin Brown Jr. brings his charisma and youthful energy to this show, at one point thrilling the crowd by doing a leaping splits and catching his hat on the way down. Kia Brown matches that energy, their high-kicking jitterbug duet "How Ya Baby" a highlight, and has moments both comedic and poignant ("Keepin' Out of Mischief Now"). Cornisha Garmon entertains with the lovely "Squeeze Me," the couple fight "That Ain't Right" with Kevin, and more. The smooth-singing Len Jones woos the audience with "Honeysuckle Rose" and makes us laugh with "Your Feet's Too Big." Last but not least, Angela Stewart channels Nell Carter, but with a style of her own, from the flirty "Cash for Your Trash" to the heart-wrenching "Mean to Me."

Austene Van also choreographed the show, with lots of fun jive, jitterbug, and swing, popular early 20th century American dance styles that originated in the Black community. But perhaps her most successful staging is that of the sobering song "Black and Blue," with the five performers seated on stools, letting the lyrics and stunning harmonies shine without distraction from movement. Lighting cues help differentiate scenes and set the tone, on a set that looks like a Harlem jazz club, the cast dressed in jazz age glam (lighting design by Sue Berger, set design by Robin McIntyre, costume design by Joe Burch).

This is your chance to see a rarely done Tony winning musical that celebrates the music of an important 20th century American composer, well performed by this talented cast and band. Ain't Misbehavin' plays Thursdays through Sundays at the Capri Theater through June 4 (click here for info and tickets).