by Louis Train
The dresses sparkle, the band swings, and the dancers fly at the Southwark Playhouse, where Ain’t Misbehavin’ runs through June. This revival of the Broadway show from the 1970s, which strings together tunes from Harlem Renaissance man and jazz great Fats Waller, proves that when music is really good, it’s really good in any decade.
Fats Waller’s career spanned much of the first half of the 20th century, although he is mostly known for the tunes he composed in the 20s. A good deal of them are called classics, and rightfully so; they are kinds of the toe-tapping, knee bumping, hum-along numbers so fun you don’t easily notice the technical innovation and sheer talent that went into composing them. Waller is also credited, nowadays, as having brought African-American rhythms, themes, and vernacular across racial boundaries. Director Tyrone Huntley fills the cast of Ain’t Misbehavin’ with five people of colour, which gives the show a sense of artistic authenticity and continues Waller’s legacy.
All five performers pull double duty as dancer and singer. The dancing is quick, hot fun, but in the restrictive space of the Southwark Playhouse, the kicks can’t fly too high. You have to wonder what Huntley and choreographer Oti Mabuse might have pulled off on a full-sized stage.
The singing is really where Ain’t Misbehavin’ gets you. Each of these singers has a voice that makes the brass section bashful. They belt with with force and croon with finesse. It would be cruel to single out just one performer from a cast of diamonds, but Renée Lamb, whose career began just last year in Six, does magic with a voice full of texture. She sounds like she’s singing and talking at the same time.
If you walk into a random London theatre, chances are you’ll stumble into either a gushy mega-musical or a period drama about people who hate their parents. Thank God for Ain’t Misbehavin’, which provides good, hot, clever fun, and gives you something to hum for the rest of the night.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ runs through 1 June.
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