Arena Players brings the Harlem Renaissance to life in ‘Ain’t Misbehavin”

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Photo credit: Felicia Chapple

Arena Players’ production of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” charms with charismatic performances, dapper costumes and the infectious joy of its Harlem Renaissance-inspired score.

A five-person cast sings this musical revue, named for a Fats Waller song, celebrating the scene of the 1920s and ’30s Harlem Renaissance and haunts like the Cotton Club and Savoy Ballroom through more than two dozen exuberant, cheeky and tender songs. The Tony Award-winner opened on Broadway in 1978, and has been a favorite musical revue for the past 40 years.

Arena Players, the oldest continuously operating African American community theater in the United States, is one of the warmest, most community-minded theaters in Baltimore, and Sunday’s matinee performance of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” made it easy to see how the strength of its support system has kept the company thriving for more than six decades with minimal marketing.

During an almost sold-out performance, when many in attendance were still in their colorful and crisp Sunday church clothes, the crowd clapped along enthusiastically, showered “Yes, girl!” praise on singers showing attitude and ate complimentary ham-and-cheese subs at intermission, thanks to Dunbar High School’s Class of 1959, which partly sponsored the performance.

Most of “Ain’t Misbehavin'”is about fully embracing life’s pleasures, humor and truths. Audience members, including the woman sitting behind me, freely sang along to favorites like “Honeysuckle Rose,” “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” The five-person cast seemed to feed off of the overwhelming audience support, and returned the love with playful, charming performances.

I couldn’t help but smile as the dapper James A. Brown shined his way through his numbers, or how Stacey M. Saunders turned into Beyoncé on the chorus of the naughty “Find Out What They Like.”

Syracuse University performing arts grad Lauren Krystal Waters pops on stage, confidently dancing not only with her body, but also with her Betty Boop eyes. She looks like a pro and anchors the ensemble on highly choreographed numbers.

The cast is rounded out by Katrina Jones, whose low register is like diamond-studded velvet, and Carltaise Ransom, who, cloaked in a fog from a smoke machine, luxuriates in a good-time stoner performance of “The Viper’s Drag (The Reefer Song).”

The costumes by Asia McCallum and Victoria V. Jackson are beautiful. The women are outfitted in fit-and-flare jewel-tone dresses adorned with shiny pins, pearl jewelry and flower headpieces à la Billie Holiday. Their makeup is gorgeous, too, with eyelashes for days and blue, fuchsia and silver eyeshadow shades that complement each dress.

The men—including music director Anthony Dix, who is on stage the entire show playing piano in a bowler hat and vest—look sharp in tailored three-piece suits, complete with pocket squares, boutonnieres and hats suitable to the Jazz Age.

Director Davron T. Young has made sure the jubilance of the show shines through, incorporating subtle flirtations supported by simple, stylish choreography by Angelisa Gillyard.

Even with some stumbling over lyrics and missed notes and steps, the show is delightful. The actors, who perform without microphones, are all capable singers with different strengths, but even sitting in the front row, it was sometimes difficult to hear or understand them. But no one seemed to mind that much; the audience clearly enjoyed themselves and showed their appreciation with a partial standing ovation.

“Ain’t Misbehavin'” runs at Arena Players through July 1. For tickets and more information, visit arenaplayersinc.com. The show runs about 2 hours long, including a 15-minute intermission.



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