Review: Face Off Theatre's 'Ain't Misbehavin' is a Joyful Celebration of Black Artistry
Written by Marin Heinritz. Photo: Cast of "Ain't Misbehavin'" at Face Off Theatre.


“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a joyous, riotous affair, a grand celebration of the innovative American jazz pianist and composer Fats Waller.

The 1978 multiple Tony Award winning musical revue speaks through more than two dozen of Waller’s wonderfully witty songs written between 1922 and 1943 to tell a story of the African American experience in a particular time and place—that of the Harlem Renaissance.

And the Face Off Theatre Company production, under inspired direction from King Ryan Singleton, brings all the festivity, all the subtle raunchiness, all the love, and all the depth intended by Waller’s body of work as well as the show’s creators, Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr., to Kalamazoo audiences.

From start to finish, this fine production summons the period, effectively transforming the Joliffe Theatre into an intimate Manhattan nightclub in the early 20th Century, a joint that’s jumpin’,  where the smoke is thick, the drinks are flowing, and you’re asked to check your weapon at the door.

In addition to the theatre’s stadium seating, a cluster of tables in front of the proscenium stage create the feel of a cabaret through which Shea-Lin Shobowale Benson and Jévonā Kelley as the Harlem Ensemble wend their way and others of the five central cast members interact with the VIP audience members. And projected images onto screens that frame the stage, from period illustrations of Manhattan from a Harlem point of view to interiors and exteriors of The Cotton Club, among others, also invoke time and place—as do the marvelous costumes (designed by Singleton), from suits complete with bowler hats and wingtips for the men and sequined cocktail dresses, head pieces as crowns, and bejeweled capelets and furs for the women.

But of course it’s the music more than anything that summons the period, magnificently so, with music direction from Monica Washington Padula who plays a mean stride piano and leads the excellent orchestra upstage, including trombone, trumpet, bass, and drums, to make a terrific five-piece jazz band.

And the spirited cast bring all the energy and jubilance to create enormous characters who emerge convincingly of the time—and reminiscent of the original cast members—with playful and at times delightfully suggestive choreography from Kourtney Ketterhagen. 

Dayanna Price as Charlayne, Bri Edgerton as Armelia, Kayla Lynn as Nell, Jay Duquette as Andre, and Öba Ellis as Ken are most powerful together in the grand, sweeping numbers, such as “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, “The Joint is Jumpin’” and “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” though they each take a well-earned turn in the spotlight, most notably Duquette in “The Viper’s Drag” and Ellis in “Your Feet’s Too Big”, both delightfully comic, as well as Lynn in the devastating “Mean to Me”—and take ample opportunity to ad lib and play with the audience, who are encouraged to talk back during the performance.

In addition to the largely ebullient numbers that celebrate the Black experience, even with a wink and a nod to the racial and gender stereotypes of the time, there’s also a real depth with the show striking a somber note that speaks to the cruel realities, even amid joy and self creation, of living in a white supremacist society, most notably in “Black and Blue” with the lyric “I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case.”

There’s no plot, exactly, here, nor should there necessarily be in a musical revue; however, there is a narrative arc that subtly moves through time, from the tunes and performances by and for Black artists to the infiltration of the white gaze with the rising popularity of jazz and cultural appropriation, though it’s all handled with a light touch, and might be missed entirely by those simply eager to be entertained. 

For this two-hour show is, ultimately, hugely entertaining, a marvelous celebration of the remarkable talents and contributions of the legendary Fats Waller as well as an important period of African American history, just in time for Juneteenth. It’s a tremendous undertaking, a true labor of love, and a gift by and for Kalamazoo’s Black community that makes everyone welcome and part of the fun.

Ain't Misbehavin' 
Face Off Theatre
June 14-23