The other thing I like about small theatres is that I can see, hear, smell, and sometimes even taste (smoke bombs for instance) what is happening on the stage. All the while with my attention focused on that actor or interaction I'm most interested in. No camera leading me back and forth. I'm in control of the viewpoint.
One such musical that I saw locally which really impressed me is Ain't Misbehavin'. It's a story, almost 99% musical, about Fats Waller, a Tin Pan Alley songwriter and piano player that was popular in the 20's and 30's.
I had seen excerpts of the cast members performing some numbers from it on the Today Show when it was first released on Broadway. I wished I could be there to watch the whole show. The score ranged from big and bouncy swing to sad and melancholy blues. Didn't expect I'd ever get the chance to see it. I did get the soundtrack though.
Then, in the late 80's I noticed it was being produced by the Johnson Theatre at Winthrop University. That's it. I'm in! I bought tickets without thinking twice.
The Johnson Auditorium was built in 1920. At the time I saw Ain't Misbehavin' it still possessed that same look and charm finally being remodeled in 1993 and now it is even better. Comfortable and just the right size to give the actors and stage crew room to work with great lighting, and not a bad seat in the house.
But at the time they barely had room for the band to setup on the floor, off of stage right. It was a small ensemble and I thought how are they ever going to be able to do that swing without room to move, but swing they did. No lack of talent in that department. They had it covered. So did the singers.
Ain't Misbehavin' is essentially all music. Songs of the time written by Fats Waller and originally performed in the musical by five main cast members: Nell Carter, Ken Page, Armelia McQueen, André DeShields, and Charlayne Woodard and all are called by their names in the production.
The setting was sparse at the Winthrop performance but you can imagine yourself being at a nightclub in New York sometime after the first world war and before the second. All the songs are written by Fats Waller and feature the stride piano sound he is so famous for.
A couple of years ago I met a lady, Meme Simmons, that was in the national tour of Ain't Misbehavin' so I contacted her to find out what it was like to work on such a musically rich production. She told me she auditioned for the role of Armelia in New York City. "I actually saw an audition post for Ain't Misbehavin' for the tour. I was vaguely familiar with the musical because I am a fan of Nell Carter but I wasn't really sure what it was about until I auditioned for it."
I wanted to find out more about how she liked the songs in the musical and asked her about the physicality of performing the numbers because there is quite a bit of dancing in it too. I explained that for me it was a little like a history lesson with all the great Tin Pan Alley music, the war effort, what rationing was like, and the mood of the people of the time.
She told me "I feel like it is about those things but for me it was a different perspective. I was looking at it from an African American's point of view as well. That time period was a great time for music and dance for us and everyone wanted to come to the Harlem clubs and learn the dances and sing the songs. I think [I] know [why], because his music has universal appeal. Who doesn't like This Joint is Jumpin? But then he hits us with one of my favorite songs in the show which is Black and Blue. Not only was it difficult to learn because of the harmonies but because of it's content. The lyrics 'I'm white, inside. But that don't help my case. Cause I, can't hide what it on my face.' gave me goosebumps the first time I heard it. I personally felt that way at one point when I was very young. So the fact that back in the 30's and 40's Fats Waller even with his success felt that way was amazing to me. Of course I grew out of that phase but that song still moves me to this day and I did that show 10 years ago."
About all the dancing and stage moves? "It was extremely difficult. Not only was there a lot of dancing but there's a lot of music. About 30 or so songs. There's very little dialogue." Meme also told me "Often times audience members would sing along with us but the one song they always loved and sang was I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter." I can identify with that as my mother used to often sing that song as well.
Meme is now the owner and artistic director at Debbie's Angels Productions in Jacksonville, North Carolina providing the community with quality theatre productions. They are just completed She Wrote, Died, Then Wrote Some More! this weekend. Coming up in February will be Steel Magnolias.
I ran across a made for TV version of Ain't Misbehavin' on YouTube with the original cast members. Check it out and you'll see what I mean and if you ever get a chance see it in person. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.