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Aint' Misbehavin'
New Straits Times
Faridul Anwar Farinordin is seduced by the allure
of "Ain't Misbehavin'", a musical journey in two acts

By Faridul Anwar Farinordin

Imagine being seduced for two-and-a-half hours. That's exactly what will happen when you watch the Broadway musical Ain't Misbehavin', featuring Fats Waller's popular compositions and other selected tunes that he performed between the 1920s and 1940s.

Each song flows with sensuality, giving glimpses of characters we all want to fall in love with. You'll laugh at their stories and self-mockery but you'll also share their hopes and dreams.

Having premiered 24 years ago, the musical falls in the same vein as Stephen Sondheim's Putting It Together and Side By Side (comprising songs from Sondheim's earlier musicals).

Nonetheless, local theatre lovers are more familiar with the latter, thanks to larger-than-life divas like Bernadette Peters and Julie Andrews who starred in them. Ain't Misbehavin', on the other hand, features a lesser-known African-American cast.

It is not a surprise when a typical response to the musical goes: "Ain't Misbe-what?"

Okay, let's take it slow.

Ain't Misbehavin' features more than 30 songs which were performed, collaborated or composed by Waller. They are put together as a musical journey in two acts.

Set in a Harlem, New York jazz club circa 1930s, the show is about three African-American women and two men who flirt, mock society, pour out their emotions and poke fun at others (via wonderfully-written songs).

Currently being staged at Parkroyal Hotel in Kuala Lumpur until Saturday, the award-winning musical gives us a slice of the lives in Harlem in that era and talks about matters that are worth singing about.

The songs are honest and true to the community's feelings without sounding like an endless whine. To do this, they inject a brilliant humour.

After all, this was the time when black musicians sold their songs at jazz clubs like The Cotton Club for US$25-US$30 (at current exchange rates, this works out to RM95-RM114) - these tunes would become a hit only to have someone else getting the credit!

They talk about wannabe divas (When The Nylons Bloom Again), singers who entertain troops overseas (Yacht Club Swing) and material girls (Cash For Your Trash), among others.

Hilarious, entertaining and sometimes somber, they are a part of Waller's 450 compositions which have either been recorded or performed in movies or other musicals. Other featured songwriters include Nat King Cole (That Ain't Right).

While the upbeat jazz and swing create the backbone of the compositions, there are also blues and soul to infuse a tingling sensation down your spine and leave you feeling warm and cosy.

Under the musical direction of Thomas Wesley Douglas, the cast comprises C.C. Campbell, Maurice Parent, Khaliah Stallings, Denise Powell and Dondre Greenhouse.

Their soaring voices add more sensuality to the already-seductive show, particularly during a five-part harmony performance. Theatrical and comical punctuations in the songs also allow them to manipulate their voices and acting skills to amazing results.

It is true that songs have a life of their own, but not everybody can pull off this feat as successfully as the cast members who ultimately become the tune they sing.

In Fat and Greasy, for example, Parent and Greenhouse instantly "turn" themselves into big lumps of lard that sing, although they are as good-looking and fit as Will Smith!

The cast also makes the show so sexy, thanks to a combination of things - their "attitude", vocals, fluid moves, Al Capone-like outfits, pretty dresses and the way they say "hun-nayy" and "bay-bayyy".

It is also interesting to note that while musicals from local productions always emphasise complicated choreography, Ain't Misbehavin' charms with simple yet sleek moves.

Nonetheless, the audience still gets a taste of tap-dancing from the high-pitch-voiced Stallings who, by the way, has a degree in dance.

The singers are backed by Douglas on piano and a small orchestra comprising local musicians on saxophone, clarinet, drums and double bass.

Truly, Ain't Misbehavin' is one of those shows that's not to be missed.