Audience participation heightens the spirit of Irving Street Rep’s version of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” a Broadway musical revue that won an array of Tony Awards.
“We break the fourth wall,” said Ron Lucas, referring to the traditional invisible wall between the audience and the performers. “We bring people onstage of all ages,” he explained, and the cast encourages audience response.
Many people are familiar with the enduring Fats Waller songs, such as the title song and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Two Sleepy People,” Lucas said, but even if they don’t know the songs, they easily get into the fast-paced spirit of the show. Numbers like “The Joint Is Jumpin’ ” and “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” have a contagious stomping, clapping energy.
Lucas is a member of the cast as well as co-founder of Irving Street Rep with A. Curtis Fallow. Fallow is director and choreographer of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which features 30 songs by Thomas Wright (Fats) Waller, piano player, singer and comic during the 1920s and ’30s era of the Harlem Renaissance.
Starting out as a youthful church organist, he became a master of the stride piano style that was popular in Harlem jazz in the ’30s. He became a prolific song writer and recording artist and he played in Manhattan nightclubs like The Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom (where blacks performed, but were not admitted as audience members), as well as at honky-tonk dives and rollicking rent parties. At one time he was kidnapped to play at Al Capone’s birthday party. He toured in Europe, was popular on radio, and appeared in two Hollywood films. He died of pneumonia at age 39, but his music has become iconic.
“Each song tells a story. It has a beginning, a middle and an ending,” Lucas said. “It’s music that is totally American, with no European influence.”
The styles range from romantic ballads to rousing, stomping numbers, and some of them were bawdy for the time, although they are pretty tame by today’s standards, Lucas noted.
The five performers have impressive show-business resumes. Vivian Jett made her debut onto the Broadway stage when she stepped into “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” in 1980. Lucas calls her this show’s lead singer.
Dawn Marie Driver has been described by a critic as “a soprano section all by herself.” Famecia Ward has been a Kennedy Center Theatre Festival nominee and has appeared in numerous musicals and on television.
Lucas has an extensive background in musicals and tours his one-man show, “The Nat King Cole Songbook.”
Director-producer Farrow is an Emmy-winning singer, actor, producer and director.
The performers wear period costumes, with bowlers, spats, ermine and pearls as they take the audience back to Harlem’s heyday.
Darius Frowner is music director and “piano player extraordinaire,” said Lucas. He embodies the Fats Waller spirit at the piano. Band members are Carter Yasutake, trumpet, Bruce Jackson, drums, Rick Matt, saxophone and clarinet, and Brahm Sheray, bass.
The Broadway production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” by Murray Horowitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., opened in 1978. It made history by winning every Tony Award category, including best musical. It is a musical revue, going from song to song without narration.
The songs are the same as in the original show, but audience participation is what makes the Irving Street Rep performances different, Lucas said.
“The music is wonderful to perform. It’s fun and every night is a different show because the audience is different.”