Throughout this nearly two-hour show being performed at Mad Cow Theatre in downtown Orlando, five exceptionally talented singers, dancers – and, it should be added, skilled comedians – perform for the audience. It’s a musical with just a limited amount of dialogue, but what’s so absolutely charming about this show is the wonderful nostalgic vibes it creates, as well as the verisimilitude of transporting you back to a specific time and place.
Watching the singers light up the stage with their electrifying and energetic performances, you truly do feel like you’ve traveled back to a Manhattan nightclub in the 1930s – when visitors to the Big Apple could ride up to Harlem and enjoy the golden age of swing and Jazz in the nightclubs there.
This isn’t accomplished through set design, necessarily. At the back of the Mad Cow stage inside its Harriett Theatre, the musicians are seated. There are also, on the left and right hand corners of the stage, three small tables that seat two people at each one. In a clever twist, this represents the very first time that Mad Cow has allowed members of its audience to be seated on the stage. Two of the tables are reserved for members of the audience, while the cast members use that third table during some of their musical numbers.
What works, instead, are the very ingredients that go into recapturing the music of a different era: some very handsomely designed costumes that evoke the 1930s, quite a bit of eye-popping choreography, and, of course, the talent of those great singers.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’ “ is a musical revue that was written by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., employing a compilation of and music by various composers – starting with the title song by Fats Waller.
The show, which opened in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s East 73rd St. cabaret on Feb. 8, 1978 (it would go on to become the 1978 Drama Desk & Tony Awards Winner for Best Musical), is a loving tribute to the black musicians of the 1920s and 1930s who became part of the legendary “Harlem Renaissance,” the days when Manhattan nightclubs like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom filled with piano players and singers demonstrating the wide appeal of swing.
No surprise that these clubs become the favorite playground of high society – “Ain’t Misbehavin’ “ collects some fascinating gems from an earlier era.
It’s unfortunate that as each decade goes by, the songs from earlier times tend to get completely forgotten. “Ain’t Misbehavin’ “ revives some real sizzlers, like “T Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Cash for your Trash,” that stand up beautifully today. At times risqué, at other times brilliantly clever and witty, often naughty and downright fun, these songs are a testament to the skills of these early pioneering songwriters.
The five singers do great justice to the material. Clinton Harris, tall and lanky, provides does sharp dance moves throughout the show, while Shonn McCloud is a comic delight. There’s almost always a wide smile on his face, and he’s hilarious crooning the humorously insulting “Your Feet’s Too Big.” He and Harris have a great put-down song together, “Fat and Greasy.”
The women – Shauna Leigh Alexander, Amitria Fanae and Monique L. Midgette – match them song for song, and the entire cast unite for an amazingly moving, even spiritual, moment, in the almost hymn-like blues song “Black and Blue,” which is truly one of the show’s most rousing highlights.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’ “ is being performed Thursdays through Sundays until July 5 at the theater at 54 W. Church St. Curtain time is 7:30 for all evening performances and 2:30 p.m. for matinees. Tickets start at $29.25.
Drinks are allowed inside the Harriett Theatre, so fill your glass at the Mad Cow bar, head inside, and enjoy an amazing flashback to the Harlem Renaissance’s glory days.
Call 407-297-8788 for reservations.
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