Review: Ain't Misbehavin' by Tex-Arts
by Michael Meigs
Ain't Misbehavin' is a lively and exciting all-music evening at Tex-Arts, Lakeway, a Fats Waller "musical show" as promised in the subtitle. You might for one brief moment think that you were in a welcoming dive in Harlem, east St. Louis or the South Side of Chicago, as those five attractive and energetic performers and four-piece band sing, dance and blast away in the close quarters of the Kam and James Morris theatre out in Lakeway.
The venue is speakeasy size and Tex-Arts offers seating both at the cocktail tables floorside and in its short rank of risers. No white-coated waiters are circulating here, although you can bring your refreshments in with you, and the performers are mic'd up with gear that's non-obtrusive and surprisingly well balanced.
Why put microphones on them at all? Waller's jive and stride piano music interpreted by Austin Haller and his musicians is celebratory and loud, for one thing, and diminutive, perky Judy Arnold has a voice and power that otherwise might just blast everyone else away.
Fats Waller was a giant of jazz and popular music with a huge personality and a thick portfolio of original compositions, many of which became classics. The cast and musicians stage 29 numbers over the course of about two hours with a 15-minute intermission, and you're likely to recognize many of them -- including Honeysuckle Rose, Squeeze Me (but Please Don't Tease Me), Mean to Me, I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter, It's A Sin to Lie, and other standards in addition to Ain't Misbehavin'.
This is a show, not a play. There's very little dialogue, other than some mock radio announcements and some teasing exchanges during the songs. Director-choreographer Bernard Dotson gives the performers clever moves and dances that build for us the impression that yes, we are watching and participating with high-life folk at home in the early years of World War II (reinforced with Cash for Your Trash and When the Nylons Bloom Again). In fact, Waller died in 1943 from tuberculosis that he caught on the road. He was not quite forty years old.
Your feet will be tapping and you'll have a smile on your face, because these three women and two men have fine voices and a dedication to Waller's care-free style. Tiny Judy Arnold, strong shouldered Dorothy Mays Clark and ringleted Rodnesha Green do solos or ensemble work, each establishing a distinctive persona. Devere Rogers takes on Fats Waller's big smile and false innocence ("One never knows, do one?"). Quincy Kuykendall has the smooth moves, smooth voice and astonishingly loose-jointed backbone of a born dancer.
The performers could have dropped out of a 1930's movie reel. That orchestra wouldn't have fit there, however -- pianist/director Austin Haller is the assistant organist down at St. David's Episcopal in downtown Austin, the trumpeter's first name is Kyle, and not one of the musicians is African-American. But your atention will be captured by the mini-dramas of Waller's songs, staged in various combinations of performers and in fact accumulating a greater sense and even a narrative.
A lot of Waller's music is partypartyparty music, tinted with booze, flirting and forgetting tough times. Act II brings some of the dark side -- Judy Arnold delivers Billy Holiday's lament Mean to Me to an inattentive, gin-swilling Rogers; Kuykendall stalks, inhales and writhes with the Viper's Drag and its mocking, hallucinatory celebration of reefer. A couple of raucous comedy numbers follow, with Arnold and Clark talking about pleasing men (Find Out What They Like) and the two men doing a cruelly hilarious put-down of a man who's Fat and Greasy. Then all five performers, unmoving and perched on simple white stools, do a quiet, contained harmony-colored rendition of (What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue. It's a moment of great depth and dignity, one that turns all the hectic inside-out. Before they turn to their happy jumpin' finale numbers, they remind us without a word of direct dialogue or reproval that celebration is the other side of grief. The blues is what gives jive its flavor.
2300 Lohman's Spur
Lakeway, TX, 78734