Q&A: ‘Ain’t Misbehavin” salutes Harlem Renaissance at Signature Theatre

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Ain't Misbehavin'' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — It dominated Broadway with three Tonys, including Best Musical of 1978.

This month, “Ain’t Misbehavin'” dazzles Signature Theatre (Jan. 23-March 10), featuring the timeless music of Thomas “Fats” Waller, whose 1929 jazz standard gives the show its name.

“This is a musical of black excellence of amazing musicians, amazing vocalists, an amazing band and an amazing creative team that have brought the Harlem Renaissance to current day 2019 America,” music director Mark G. Meadows (“Jelly’s Last Jam”) recently told WTOP.

Directed by Joe Calarco from a concept by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz, the show salutes the pioneering black musicians of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s.

“Often times whenever you see a black cast or African Americans in theater … it’s a cast that is all saddened and has to overcome,” Meadows said. “But this is just a joyful example of what we do when we’re together, which is create. … Come out to see some amazing people come together and perform music like you’ve never heard before, written by one of the great songwriters of our American history, Fats Waller. With this cast, why would you not come?”

The high-energy cast is an ensemble of five familiar faces from the Signature Theatre ranks, including Iyona Blake (“Titanic”), Nova Y. Payton (“Jelly’s Last Jam”), Kevin McAllister (“A Little Night Music”), Solomon Parker III (“Billy Elliot”) and Korinn Walfall (“Jesus Christ Superstar”).

“It’s an ensemble piece and each one of us pulls our weight,” Blake told WTOP. “I am the fun. I bring the laugh. I have some sexy moments,” to which Meadows immediately added, “Many!”

Those sexy flourishes are orchestrated by choreographer Jared Grimes.

“This choreography is perfect,” Meadows said. “It’s complex, it’s simple, it moves, it goes with the time, it flows, it will have you jumping in the seats. It’s amazing what Jared has done with this cast of five people who are never stopping. … There’s a waltz where it’s a slow, three-four, beautiful ballad. There’s stuff where we’re swinging fast tempo. There are ballads, intimate moments where they’re just sitting on the piano bench with me.”

It’s all set to Waller’s signature songbook, from “The Joint is Jumpin’” to “Handful of Keys.”

“The one that’s been stuck in my head all night and day has been, ‘This joint is jumpin, it’s really jumpin,'” Meadows sang. “‘Honeysuckle Rose,’ we’ve got ‘Squeeze Me,’ which is a really sexy, intimate song that Iyona does. It’s just a fun, happy, loving, sexy show. … There’s a quote from one of the patrons who said, ‘If you’re in a bad mood tonight, you won’t leave in one.'”

Not only are the songs catchy, they’re layered with biting humor.

“Fats Waller was as much of a maestro and a virtuoso on the piano as he was a comedian,” Meadows said. “With all of these songs, there’s this tinge of comedy. You can’t listen to his lyrics without having a grin on your face. He’s a true human where he writes songs like ‘It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,’ whereas we all know this man was drinking the Old Grand-Dad every night and might not have been telling the truth at all times. But he writes songs about what all of us are thinking and going through, but he does it in a comedic way that is just so satirical.”

Woven beneath it all is a social commentary on race relations with the song “Black and Blue.”

“It’s a summary of the struggles that we as African Americans, in particular as performers, go through,” Meadows said. “It’s almost like ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green.’ We’re black. There’s one lyric that says, ‘I’m white inside but that don’t help my case.’ … The way I interpret that is: as much as I might put on this face of being proper and fitting into white culture in America, I’m still black — and that’s not going to change. I think we as performers have a duty to have other people understand what we go through and I think that song encapsulates that.”

This commentary is brought to life by period visual elements by scenic designer Paige Hathaway, lighting designer Sherrice Mojgani and costume designer Sarita Fellows.

“It really highlights the Harlem Renaissance era, so it’s bright, it’s vibrant, the texture, from the costumes to the set, it makes you feel like you’re in a 1930s nightclub,” Blake said. “When you walk into the theater, it’s not a theater, it’s a night club. … The costumes [include] lots of bling, lots of beautiful colors. [It’s] elegant, from heels to dresses to long coats [and] tuxedos.”

Audiences are even encouraged to dress up in their favorite 1930s attire.

“We welcome if those want to come dressed up in their finest,” Blake said.

In the end, the creative team hopes that it’s a welcome escape for the community.

“It’s medicine,” Blake said. “In a world where you turn on the TV and it seems like it’s always bad news, it gives some hope, something to look forward to. I believe that is what theater does. They should come because they want to have a good time and leave feeling refreshed.”

Find more details on the Signature Theatre website. Listen to our full conversation below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Iyona Blake & Mark G. Meadows (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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