CHARITY ANGÉL DAWSON sits in the window of her apartment, fiddling with the radio. Slowly, the rest of the actors enter. They walk through the rotating set, giving the already-captive audience a sort of day and night in the life, without too many words. The title track starts with a bang, and the energy onstage and in the audience rises—it gave me chills.
Ain't Misbehavin' is a great show, and Portland Center Stage's Chris Coleman takes the classic and turns it on its side. Created from the vast repertoire of Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller, who recorded more than 100 songs in 1938, PCS' production expands the cast from five to 11, and they seamlessly weave in and out of an elaborate set of apartments, alleys, kitchens, and bedrooms.
These additions create a loose but intimate narrative thread that offers insight into life during the Harlem Renaissance of the '20s and '30s. You never forget the play's cultural context, but you get a feel for how communities got on—through jazz, relationships, sex, and dancing.
The show runs just shy of two hours, but it flies by. Intimate moments like Olivia Phillip's emotive, romantic solo in "Squeeze Me" made the audience silently swoon, while more energetic songs had the entire cast onstage, and the audience swaying along in their seats, barely resisting the urge to sing and dance along.
Throughout the emotionally captivating narrative, racism and the dire economic situation of the Depression simmer subtly beneath the surface of the first act, until they're overtly addressed in songs like "When the Nylons Bloom Again," "Cash for Your Trash," and "Black and Blue" in the second, creating a mood that's more somber, and—in the wake of recent events—harrowing. Sung by the full cast, "Black and Blue" was written as a commentary on violence and racism targeting African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance, and it still resonates today, connecting current events to a long history of racially motivated violence.
Even taking into account the songs that might make you cry (or want to), seeing Ain't Misbehavin' is an enjoyable experience. And maybe that's the point. Even amid the worst circumstances, there are moments of play.