What becomes a legend most? Revival. For what must be the biggest theatrical touring venture in Rochester's history, Downstairs Cabaret Theatre is producing a 63-city tour of the legendary Fats Waller musical Ain't Misbehavin'.
The original award-winning show opened in February, 1978, off-Broadway, as a cabaret show, but quickly moved to Broadway for 1,604 performances in the Longacre Theatre. Virtually intact, with the same cast, it became an NBC TV special in 1982, and the by-then famous cast revived it on Broadway for its tenth anniversary in 1988. When DCT's production continues into 2003, Ain't Misbehavin' will be celebrating its 25th anniversary.
One of the five amazing stars of that famed production, Broadway veteran Ken Page (Cats, The Wiz, etc.), directs this revival as a faithful reconstruction of the original. He and choreographer Seth Hoff closely follow the staging ideas of Richard Maltby, Jr., and his choreographer, Arthur Faria. Musical director Stephen Kummer has taken no significant liberties with Jeffrey Gutcheon's original vocal and musical concepts, and certainly isn't foolish enough to mess with the great Luther Henderson's brilliant orchestrations and arrangements. Even the mono-monikered Miro's costumes generally follow the original 1978 designs.
So why not a reinterpretation for the 21st century? Why this downright archeological approach? Well, the little cabaret act that mushroomed into a constantly revived theater classic turned out to be a perfectly judged entertainment, irresistibly recreating the vivid jazz period and impish wit of Fats Waller's music and performance style. Waller not only wrote such beloved songs as "Honeysuckle Rose," "T'Aint Nobody's Business If I Do," and "Ain't Misbehavin'," but also hilarious, foot-tapping numbers like "Your Feet's Too Big" and "Fat and Greasy" that are inevitable show-stoppers when performed by a lively, appealing cast. Carefully calibrated by the super-talented Page to achieve maximum entertainment effect, this show is a wind-up toy. Get it in motion, and you've won the audience on contact.
The young cast is expectedly energetic, talented, and attractive, and they seem to have been expertly coached in delivering the music of the '30s and early '40s as though they were born to sing it. Page has them clowning with winning charm throughout. He keeps the original assignments, so that big, commanding Kenny Green does the songs and the stage business that Page did, Minyon (who also uses one name) does Nell Carter's numbers and lines, etc. You'll love those two in "Honeysuckle Rose," and the glamorous Minyon is moving in her knockout version of "Mean To Me." Chanta Layton uses her adorable comic expressions and big, rich voice to great effect in numbers like "Squeeze." Ikeya Morning brings a dancer's thrust and grace to several numbers, and is hilarious in the frenetic "Yacht Club Swing." And Rochesterian Aljernon Duval not only sings and dances with solid skill, but even manages the sly, sexy slither needed to hypnotize the audience with "The Viper's Drag/The Reefer Song."
The band has been cut down from seven to three --- Jim Herendeen on keyboards, Greg Gascon on drums, and Tim Sullivan playing bass --- but they swing with a pretty full sound. The Downstairs Cabaret Theatre doesn't have the acoustics to do real justice to their playing, but other venues on tour no doubt will. Ditto the lighting, which looks too primitive to tell what was designed. I've been told that the touring version has a very large, showy set, which can't even fit in the DCT's building.
Still, for a good time, call Downstairs Cabaret Theatre. If you catch this unkillable crowd-pleaser here, you'll enjoy it.
Dance Note: Fans of Timothy Draper's Rochester City Ballet and its most recent alumna, Sarah Kathryn Lane, can take pride in noting the two-page spread on Sarah in the October issue of Dance Magazine, the world's largest magazine on dance. The article, by DM's New York editor, Wendy Perron, includes a full-page colorphoto of Lane and a glowing description of her medal-winning performances at the Youth America Grand Prix and USA International Ballet Competition. It also discusses her current appointment to American Ballet Theatre's studio company and the Outstanding Teacher award that Draper won in New York.
JCC CenterStage opened its 40th season doing what Ralph Meranto does best: producing a new national work, with local actors, for local audiences.