In a darkened Pantages Theater, a 1920s radio stands alone in front of the curtain. Voices whisper backstage. Then the stage manager’s voice calls out for the “top of the show, please!” and Carmen Brantley-Payne waltzes on in a swirly dress, dusting the radio and singing along to a backstage honky-tonk piano. The song is “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” and the rehearsal’s for the musical of the same name, produced by Tacoma’s Broadway Center, and featuring Northwest performers like Stephanie Anne Johnson.
The show opens this Saturday night at the Pantages, and goes on to tour to Edmonds, Bellingham and Olympia later this month.
Premiered on Broadway in 1978, “Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller musical” is a revue that celebrates the Harlem Renaissance and the legendary black jazz musicians of that era, like pianist Thomas “Fats” Waller.
“I love the music, I love the historical content, the lore of this show,” says Johnson, a Tacoma singer who gained notoriety competing on NBC’s “The Voice.” “It’s not just Fats Waller, but that so many famous actors have played this show. It’s an honor to be doing it.”
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The Broadway Center’s production is directed by Tyrone Brown, currently artistic director of Seattle’s Brownbox Theatre, and features Johnson, fellow Tacoman (and D.A.S.H. alum) Charles Simmons, Tacoma actor Eric Clausell, Portland singer Brantley-Paynes and Seattle actor Shaunyce Omar. As the cast sings its way through humorous, raunchy 1920s songs like “Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness” and “The Joint is Jumpin’,” a live band backs them, framed between a set of large-scale stylized Art Deco paintings that give a jazz-club vibe.
“We wanted to give back to the African-American community,” says Broadway Center marketing coordinator Mariesa Bus, explaining why the non-profit that manages the city’s theaters is taking on a producing role. “They’ve really embraced the changes that (executive director) David Fischer brought. And we wanted to showcase local talent.”
Another part of the production is education. This week, about 3,000 local middle and high school kids will be bussed in to see matinees, giving them a cultural history lesson in the resurgence of black identity and pride that came with the Harlem Renaissance.
Meanwhile, on stage at rehearsal Johnson has joined the rest of the cast for the first number. Clad in maroon trousers and ruffle-front shirt, she belts out harmonies in a brilliant, high soprano, wearing a cheeky smile below a hairdo of braids elaborately coiffed into a pillbox-hat shape.
“For me, the Harlem Renaissance was the time in America when there was room for a lot of black artists to make something of themselves,” says Johnson, who’s continuing her own career with an upcoming Portland production of “Showboat” and building her blog, sajmusic.com. “People like Aaron Douglas, Langston Hughes. It’s inspiring to be bringing that to an audience.”