The joint is jumping and the swing is sizzling at the Southwark Playhouse which sees itself transformed into a dazzling 1920s jazz club playing host to a musical revue inspired by the music of legendary jazz musician Thomas “Fats” Waller, chandeliers, live band and all.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ isn’t a traditional musical. There is no linear storyline and the little scripted dialogue is inconsequential when set against the power of Waller’s songs. Although I do warm to the concertlike appeal I still miss a few pointers towards Waller’s personal life and the stories behind his songs.
Designer Takis envelops you in a gold and copper setting, offering a beautiful backdrop for the amazing band made up of Elias Jordan Atkinson on the trumpet, Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson on clarinet and saxophone, Ruben Ramos Medina on bass and Blake Cascoe on drums, who, although not on stage, makes his presence known from behind the sequins.
Debuting to critical acclaim at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s East 73rd Street cabaret a good 40 years ago, Ain’t Misbehavin’ has lost none of its zing and crowd-pleasing energy.
Giving his directorial debut, acclaimed actor Tyrone Huntley guides the production with a loose lead letting the songs inform most of the performance’s tempo. Nonetheless, he displays a level of maturity in keeping the energy up even when the wild vibes of group numbers such as ‘The Joint is Jumpin’’ drop into more melancholy lamentations. Huntley knows his cast well, perfectly balancing each actor’s talents against the others’ as sultry solos meet perfect comedic timing.
Together with Strictly Come Dancing favourite Oti Mabuse, Huntley adds his own streak of originality to this musical celebration. A dance floor pro, Ain’t Misbehavin’ is Mabuse’s first outing as a musical theatre choreographer. Her joy of dancing shines through on stage as she organically interweaves different styles from the bubbly jitterbug and sparkling swing to a sensual strutting.
The cast’s ensemble performances are vivacious, but it is the solo numbers that draw you in. Renée Lamb’s rendition ‘Squeeze Me’ is infused with sensual desire and in ‘Find Out What They Like’ her sexual suggestiveness adds a liberating raunchiness to the performance.
Carly Mercedes Dyer delivers her big solo love song with entrancing ease and lends her comedic talents to numbers such as ‘Yacht Club Swing’, endearing her to the audience with a ditzy innocence.
Landi Oshinowo impresses both while basking in the sultry luxury of ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ as well as when stumbling around the stage with a little more than her first martini in hand during ‘Jitterbug Waltz’.
Adrian Hansel gives a roaring performance with ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’ before joining Wayne Robinson in an audience singalong of ‘Fat and Greasy’. The velvet suits which both men don during the second half give me a serious sense of envy.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ doesn’t just boast song and dance but offers up some deeply evocative moments. Robinson gets to strut his stuff in the steamy and sinuous ‘The Viper’s Drag’. ‘Black and Blue’ creates a more serious moment, as the cast, staged gospel-like alongside the band, send goose-bumps up and down my forearms with some heart-stopping harmonies.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a wild and raucous ride from start to finish. I exit the theatre with a spring in my step and, although it takes me an hour longer to get home because I got on the wrong train, I am left dancing along the pavement lit by the soft glow of streetlights. If you want to leave a performance with pure joy in your heart, the Southwark Playhouse is serving up something just for you.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ is playing the Southwark Playhouse until 1 June. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website.