FORT WORTH Theater directors must just live for snagging a job on a musical revue like Ain’t Misbehavin’ — the show built with songs from the great stride piano composer Fats Waller — which opened at Jubilee Theatre on Friday.
All a director has to do with a musical this loaded with appealing numbers is make sure the cast members have strong voices and that they don’t fall down while they are singing. That’s it. Just give the piano player the score, sit back and steal your paycheck.
And, given the high quality of the vocals in this production, it seems that is exactly what director Akin Babatunde could have done. Waller’s compositions, and a cast bubbling over with the talents of Major Attaway, Brandon Burrell, Chimberly Carter Byrom, Patricia Hill and Ebony Marshall-Oliver, could have wowed audiences while standing on their heads with this one.
But, apparently, that is not the way Babatunde rolls.
The performances in this production are outstanding, but some of its greatest joys are the myriad touches that the director contributes without ever getting in the way of his players. It is never anything outlandish. Just a subtle move or gesture here, a facial expression there and maybe a slight adjustment to the phrasing of a lyric or two.
But it all adds up to an enormously pleasing take on the sort of show that is the bread and butter of this theater.
The structure of the show, “conceived by” Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz, could not be simpler. The actor-singers just perform a delightful string of Waller classics: I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Your Feet’s Too Big, The Joint Is Jumpin’ and, of course, the title tune, among many others.
All of these numbers are delivered on an almost bare stage where a piano sits, unplayed (the source of the show’s music is unseen). That may sound too bare-bones to hold your attention. But, because of the cast members’ abilities to act and sell a song, and because of Babatunde’s inspired direction, the stage is always full of sound and motion.
One of the better voices in the cast belongs to Attaway. Indeed, his rich baritone is one of the best voices in North Texas. But his castmates stay with him well. The female players all have great pipes and distinctive voices.
Burrell is especially good at creating vivid characters in song, most notably in some of the more comic numbers such as The Viper’s Drag. The tune’s topic need not be mentioned, but let’s just say it might be currently under consideration to become the state song of Colorado.
The standout numbers include Honeysuckle Rose and Ladies Who Sing With the Band, at least in part because they get multiple singers involved. But there is not a single weak link in this show’s chain of fine performances. Thanks again to Babatunde’s thorough direction, each song is given its own unique world in which to live, allowing the audience to fully appreciate the depth and variety of the Fats Waller songbook.
The show’s one misstep is a literal one. Barbara O’Donoghue’s costumes, which recall Waller’s times with real class, are mostly an asset. The exception is that Attaway sports inappropriately casual, and decidedly 21st century, shoes, which undermine the impact of the rest of his duds.
So this show represents one of those rare times when the material, performances and direction become as one. Because it is being presented in this house, you expect the standard of vocal excellence that has long been established there. But what you don’t see coming is the cleverness of the staging and degree to which the players grasp and reveal Babatunde’s charming plan.
But, as Waller used to frequently opine, “One never knows, do one?”