The jazz pianist Thomas "Fats" Waller composed such happy music that it's sure to make you smile. That explains why one of the first of the so-called jukebox musicals, the 1978 Broadway show "Ain't Misbehavin'," remains one of the most enduringly popular. It's a pleasure to hear these familiar tunes again at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre.
This musical revue's spare book by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr. dispenses a few biographical snippets, but these mostly serve to stitch together the 31 songs performed on a minimally appointed, art deco nightclub-evocative set. Similarly, the five vocalists mostly play character types rather than full characters. The result is a show that purely and simply goes from one song to the next.
All of that nonstop singing in the Spotlighters' production is done by Anne Bragg, Phillip Burgess, Christopher Jones, Dana McCants and Tylar Montgomery. This is a very young cast. Indeed, several of them are still students at Morgan State University.
On the plus side, their youthful energy makes it fun to watch them rip into the musical numbers; on the minus side, their delivery tends to be uneven. Some of these songs benefit from being done by middle-aged performers who have experienced life's hard knocks and it's hard for relative youngsters to fake that.
Fortunately, the ensemble is anchored by the performer who takes on what amounts to the Waller surrogate role. Although Burgess is not nearly as hefty as some of the performers who have embodied the 285-pound Waller in earlier incarnations of the show, he's solidly built and, even more importantly, has a consistently solid voice.
Burgess really captures Waller's personality in solo numbers including "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" and "Your Feet's Too Big." In the latter song, he gives a broadly comic performance that relies on his acting as much as his singing skills. Whether in solo, duo or ensemble configurations, this performer has a firm handle on the musical material.
The other male performer in the ensemble, Jones, is generally reliable and sometimes much more than that. This lanky performer is at his best slinking around the stage in "The Viper's Drag," a notoriously funny song about recreational drug use. That number serves as a reminder that jazz hipsters during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s were anything but square.
Although the three female performers in the show occasionally fall short in terms of phrasing and projection, they also have their share of shining moments. Their solo numbers include McCants doing "Squeeze Me," Montgomery doing "Mean to Me," and Bragg doing "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now."
Among the effective duo numbers are Burgess and Montgomery with "Honeysuckle Rose," McCants and Montgomery with "Find Out What They Like," and Jones and Burgess with "Fat and Greasy."
Some of the songs overtly conjure up a sense of American life from the 1920s up through Waller's death in 1943. Montgomery's sassy take on "Cash for Your Trash" comments on World War II-related recycling efforts; and the entire company's melancholic delivery of "Black and Blue" powerfully reminds us of the second-class status imposed upon blacks by Jim Crow laws.
Also helping bring this musical era alive are director Shirley Basfield Dunlap and choreographer Mari Andrea Travis, who effectively keep the performers moving around this small in-the-round stage.
Last and definitely not least, it makes a huge difference that a very lively band is playing just off to the side. Scott Murrow on the saxophone, Evander McLean on percussion, Melissa Gnibus on clarinet and musical director Stephen Felton alternating with Charles Hayes on keyboards do their part to ensure that the joint is jumping.
"Ain't Misbehavin' " runs through Feb. 12 at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St. in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood. Tickets are $20, $18 for seniors, and $16 for students. Call 410-752-1225 or go to http://www.spotlighters.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun