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Hitting Shift-Command-F8 on a theater critic’s laptop generates a critical review of a jukebox musical with a clunky, contrived plot. Broadway critics used that theoretical shortcut several times over the past few seasons, when shows dedicated to the music of Cher, Donna Summer, and Jimmy Buffett all opened to widespread complaints
The jukebox trend isn’t new, and to be fair, a few revues do rise above the cliches, notably Jersey Boys and Beautiful, biographical musicals about Frankie Valli and Carole King, respectively.
So the first thing to praise about Ain’t Misbehavin’, the satisfying Fats Waller revue now running at Signature Theatre, is that this musical has no dialogue. This is not to say all the actors do is sing: They jump, they jive, and engage in all sorts of shenanigans as they harmonize, resulting in a show that’s mostly silly and occasionally sublime.
The man behind Ain’t Misbehavin’ (besides Waller, who died in 1943) is impresario Murray Horwitz, the current host of WAMU’s vintage radio show The Big Broadcast. Along with Richard Maltby Jr., Horwitz shepherded Ain’t Misbehavin’ to Broadway in 1978, where the musical ran for four years.
Director Joe Calarco hired hip-hop concert veteran Jared Grimes to choreograph Signature’s production, but there’s so much movement in Misbehavin’ that you can rarely tell where Calarco’s smart blocking stops and Grimes’ dancing begins, like when Solomon Parker III suddenly pirouettes, or breaks out into a soft-shoe duet with co-star Kevin McAllister, one of the best physical comedians in D.C.
Like members of an improv troupe, all five actors maintain personas throughout the show while also seamlessly segueing between more specific characters. McAllister is an amiable goofball, a smooth talker when singing “The Jitterbug Waltz” but enters insult comic mode for “Your Feet’s Too Big.” “From your ankles up, I’d say you sure look sweet,” he zings at his date. Parker is more manipulative and playful. In “The Viper’s Drag,” he slinks around crooning, “I’m the king of everything, gotta get high before I swing.”
More familiar, more innocent tunes include “Honeysuckle Rose,” “This Joint Is Jumpin’,” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” which audience members of a certain age may remember hearing on the You’ve Got Mail soundtrack along with the Cranberries and Sinéad O’Connor.
A trio of female vocalists take turns tantalizing the guys. University of Maryland graduate Korinn Walfall plays the ingénue, while local treasure Nova Y. Payton holds down the middle age and vocal range brackets, occasionally vaulting up to melismatic stratospheres. Iyona Blake is the lady of the bunch, the voluptuous soprano who occasionally overloaded the sound system on press night. (Turn her microphone down, please!) To close out Act I, the women belt a series of bawdy numbers about diva-dom, concluding with “The Ladies Who Sing With the Band.”
Act II finds Payton hinting at abuse in “Mean to Me,” and all five vocalists gather around the piano to lament the pre-Civil Rights injustices in “Black and Blue.” Their choral singing is perfect, with unison entrances and holds so sharp the voices slice right through the Cotton Club haze.
Seated at that upright piano is the jazz pianist who makes Misbehavin’ just as much a tribute to local talent as a tribute to the Harlem Renaissance. Mark G. Meadows may not have been the best actor in Jelly’s Last Jam, the Jelly Roll Morton bio-musical Signature staged a few years back, but as musical director of Ain’t Misbehavin’, he’s a marvel. Unfortunately for those seated front and center at Signature, you’ll never see Meadows’ wide smile or his hands striding across the keys.
Signature’s larger black box space is arranged cabaret-style for this show, with tables and risers on three sides of the stage. Meadows sits with his back to the bulk of the audience, in front of an excellent six-piece jazz ensemble. It’s a shame Calarco couldn’t put the piano on some sort of turntable so everyone in the audience could take a turn being amazed. The only recourse to this frustrating seating situation is to grab some companions, buy another set of tickets, and see Ain’t Misbehavin’ again.
To March 10 at 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40–$114. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.