The Segal Centre kicked off its season with a delightfully rambunctious musical revue. Ain’t Misbehavin’ celebrates music from the Harlem Renaissance, a period in the “Roaring Twenties” when African-American artists sought to affirm pride in a new black identity. First conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz with music by jazz pianist Thomas “Fats” Waller, the show went on to receive the Tony for Best Musical in 1978.
This rendition, co-produced with Copa de Oro under the direction of Roger Peace, lives up to its reputation. Five outstanding performers deliver song after song, each more infectious than the last. The three-time Juno-winning Kim Richardson is a devastating presence on stage, matching rich, full-blooded vocals with go-for-the-throat aplomb. When she sings, “If you break my heart I’ll break your jaw,” not a single soul in the room doubts her. Toya Alexis, Richardson’s frequent sparring partner, is equally ravishing, with two outstanding solos in “Squeeze Me” and “When the Nylons Bloom Again.”
It’s former McGill student and rapper Jonathan Emile, however, who hits the high note of the show with “The Viper’s Drag,” a song fittingly about the fine art of getting high. The lyrics are funny as-is (“I dreamed about a reefer, five feet long/A might immense, but not too strong”), but Emile’s delivery displays impeccable comedic timing and genuine charm. The slick and suave Michael-Lamont Lytle, who also served as dance captain, likewise won over audiences with both the romantic (“Honeysuckle Rose,” with Richardson) and the outrageous (“Your Feet’s Too Big”). The breakout star of the revue was clearly Aiza Ntibarikure. A 2011 Dawson College graduate, Ntibarikure proved capable of roughing and tumbling with the rest of the cast with an effervescent, no-holds-barred performance that channels Janelle Monáe.
The cast is accompanied by an equally-talented quintet under the direction of Chris Barillaro. A McGill alumnus and former member of Players’ Theatre, Barillaro is also an incredibly talented pianist, and the production is fortunate to have his skills. Jean-Claude Olivier’s elegant, jazz club set design and Karen Pearce’s stylish costuming add touches of opulence to the production.
As a celebration of a pivotal movement in music and American history, Ain’t Misbehavin’ is also very much an artefact of its times. Sometimes this requires a stretch of the imagination on the audience’s part, such as when Richardson appeals for us to donate our metals to the war effort (“Cash for Your Trash”). At other times, such as “Find Out What They Like,” the cost of datedness is too great to justifiably bear: “Find out what they like, and how they like it, and let him have it just that way/Give them what they want, and when they want it, without a single word to say/You got to cater to a man and if you don’t, day and night, he’ll find some other gal to do the things you won’t.” Robin Thicke couldn’t have said it better himself.
In keeping with the light-hearted, full-throttle nature of the production, the cast double downs at such moments. Indeed, Richardson sings the aforementioned lines with such gusto and strength that she almost succeeds in turning the song into a message of empowerment. That the production could still be so entertaining, warts and all, is truly a testament to the skill of the performers in wooing and winning the audience over. Besides, there are plenty of numbers that are a pure joy to see and hear. The sum total is a night of unforgettable music and passion, where the very essence of entertainment is distilled into a highly potent punch. Montreal last saw a production of the play in 1986, so no fan of theatre should pass up the present opportunity—Ain’t Misbehavin’ is nothing short of an absolute spectacle.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ runs until Oct. 20 at the Segal Centre (5710 ch. De la Cote-Ste-Catherine). Student tickets are $29.