Playhouse Stage Celebrates a Return to the Park with “Ain’t Misbehavin'”

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ALBANY — It was nearly miraculous how Playhouse Stage was able to squeeze in a terrifically energetic performance of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” between raindrops on Friday night. There was a sun shower at 5 pm which cleared up quickly for an all-clear curtain at 8, some mist closing out the first act, and finally, the heavens cried with the mournful refrain of the next to the last number, the rearranged “What did I do to become so black and blue?” The few hundred who took a chance that the show would go on were rewarded mightily as the bet paid off handsomely.

On a beautiful nightclub set (designed by Timothy Clow with lighting by Alena Samoray) with bandstand musician’s seats, a checkerboard floor and an ornate deco proscenium, Albany’s Park Playhouse in Washington Park was decked out for a night of uptown entertainment. Add the beautiful, eye catching costumes by Hollie Wooldridge and the transformation is complete. It’s been two years since “In the Heights” graced this stage and we are finally back, ready to celebrate the music of another American genius in a quintessential Albany setting.

Brandon Jones & Mariah Lyttle
Photo by Willie Short

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a 1978 Tony Award winning Best Musical that compiles a couple of dozen songs by the outsize, comedic, innovative jazz pianist and songwriter Fats Waller who rocketed to fame with 1930’s radio appearances. Playhouse Stage has chosen this piece to meet the moment and hired Jean-Remy Monnay, Artistic Director of Black Theatre Troup of Upstate NY to direct. He acquits himself very well helming his first musical, especially with the casting of his five singers and his encouragement of their relationships within songs.

Not all the comic bits away from the music pay off but the interplay among this cast and their ensemble work while singing is fantastic. All the duets hit, “When the Nylons Bloom Again,” “Fat and Greasy” were top drawer but especially great was “Honeysuckle Rose” early in the show with Mariah Lyttle and Hayes M. Fields II. Fields goosed the applause with his fingertips but we were already there. Mariah Lyttle is stunning, sexy and sultry and we smiled knowing we were going to be in her company all night.

The group numbers would blow the roof off…if Albany Park Playhouse had one. “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “The Joint is Jumpin’” and the closing medley starting with “Gonna’ Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” are gifts from the American Songbook and in this green public space and we were all grateful recipients together.

Mariah Lyttle & Hayes M. Fields II
Photo by Willie Short

Joyell Kaleel gets a late chance to grab the spotlight and does a bang-up job on “That Ain’t Right.”

Hayes M. Fields II leans into the drunkenness of “Your Feets Too Big” and hurls himself and the audience into a good time despite the jarring frankness of “I hates ya’ because your feets too big.” He is a comic delight.

Local favorite Dashira Cortes makes the most of her many opportunities to shine here and the audience responded in kind applauding heartily her held note mid-song in “Mean to Me.”

Best of all, there is exceptional work by Brandon Jones who strolls out on stage in the Fats persona in a bowler hat with an easy authority and makes the stage his party until he is the last singer to leave wandering through the musicians after the curtain call. He is the loosest, most commanding, most fun I have ever seen him.

The band under Brian Axford’s direction has the chops for the promised good time swing. When the curtain opens revealing the full seven-piece band playing Fats Waller’s innovative slide orchestrations, it’s a charge. A special effect to rival a trip into hyperspace.

Playhouse Stage has created a show with a throbbing heart and wide-open easy grin and set her down in the natural beauty of Washington Park for all to celebrate the nearly neglected, tragically brief, inventive genius of Fats Waller. Everybody should party on over to the park and celebrate this life. Paying homage never felt so good.

Through 7/24

Tickets available through www.playhousestage.org

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