Theater Review By Myra Chanin
How do you get to Harlem of the 1930’s? Easy.
Just take the B Train. Get off at 125th Street, walk one block west and a half a block south and facing you, you’ll see a clean, inviting, brightly lighted, haimish former firehouse that’s been transformed into a theater hub known as the Faison Firehouse Theater. It was co-founded in 1999 by George Faison, the first African-American choreographer to win a Tony, for his work in The Wiz. The Faison Firehouse Theater’s lobby Art Deco display, makes you feel you’ve traveled back in time. The reason I dote on off-off Broadway is because that’s where great, unvarnished talent shines with no distractions and talent was really at its peak at the Firehouse that night. The set consisted of two tables covered in leopard skin fabric, flashing black and white photos of Fats and Harlem and three furs pieces, given by Big Daddy to his three ladies. The eldest got a fox neckpiece. The middle one got a tacky ermine stole and the youngest one was wrapped in ermine. That quickly and simply told you who was what.
The Firehouse’s current, SENSATIONAL production, Ain’t Misbehavin’, reprises the Tony and Drama Desk award-winning Broadway revue with 29 great songs, written by Fats Waller and his favorite lyricist Andy Razof or introduced by him, like I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter and It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie. I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby has a murkier backstory. It was sold by Fats to Jimmy McHugh when Waller needed money and, if you pardon my French, is still included in the McHugh oeuvres.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ not only puts a feelin’ good grin on your face and a Sunday Baptist Church service mood in your heart, it gets you clappin’ your hands, tappin’ your feet, even dancing with the cast, activities encouraged by producer/director/star A. Curtis Farrow. Whatta performer! Whatta score. The songs played by Darius Frowner, on a stride piano, include clever favorites like T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I do and Cash for your Trash, the LOL funny Your Feets Too Big, the profoundly philosophical and heart-wrenching Black and Blue, the temporary hymn to devotion, Keeping out of Mischief Now, as well as perennial favorites Honeysuckle Rose and that anthem of joy, The Joint is Jumpin’ all of which are ensconced on my permanent top ten list. Curtis Farrow has been producing Ain’t Misbehaven’ for 20 years to richly deserved raves. He’s really got it down pat. It’s a night of entertainment that’s unforgettable.
I can’t imagine the original performers being any better then the wonderful cast of this production. Curtis Farrow is, like it says in the program, a veritable powder keg of energy and talent. Handsome, strong, with an undulating sexy body that also performs a murderous Baptist preacher chicken dance, a three letter word describes his triple talents best. WOW! WOW! WOW! Everyone in the audience wanted to take him home.
Vivian Jett, whom Curtis calls the Brooklyn Diva, was in the original Broadway cast, but time has not dimmed her soarding contralto. Dawn Marie Driver, whom Curtis introduces as the Brooklyn Songbird was easily Vivian’s equal. Both were hefty, square, yet very agile women with tremendous range, uplifting depth and significant torsos. Danea Robinson was younger and slimmer, but hardly a cut below. She not only sang well in diverse styles, but she was a hellova tap dancer. Ron Lucas, the show’s troubadour, is also a versatile performer and tours in The Nat King Cole Songbook one man show.
Two people who attended the performance are worth mentioning. Valerie Simpson was there and the cast dedicated a very touching chorale of Black and Blue to her late husband and partner, Nick Ashford.
The second noteworthy audience member, invited onstage by Curtis, was my husband Alvin, who grinned goofily as he examined the Vivian and Dawn bookends whose 48FF cast iron bras faced him while they sang Find Out What They Like. He looked like they already knew what they were doing.
Fairson Firehouse Theater
6 Hancock Place (124th St between Morningside and St. Nicholas) Harlem, NY
Thursday – Saturday @7:30 pm Sunday Matinee @3:00 pm
212 868-4444 www.smarttix.com