A theater revival is intended, by definition, to breathe new life into a production. But when Joe Calarco faced the prospect of directing Signature Theatre’s take on the beloved 1978 musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” he initially found himself gasping for air creatively.
“It’s a show I’ve known since I was a kid,” Calarco says. “My first thought was, ‘Well, what are we going to do with it?’ Not that I wasn’t excited about it, but I was like, ‘What is it?’”
By the time the director met with his creative team last year, however, a gust of inspiration had changed his tune: For this iteration, the set would not only re-create a Harlem Renaissance-era nightclub, but the atmosphere as well.
The back alley the performers of the time would’ve entered through? Put it onstage. Do the same with those characters’ dressing rooms. And provide period-appropriate table seating for the audience members closest to the stage.
“All of us sat up straight in our chairs as soon as Joe pitched that idea,” scenic designer Paige Hathaway says. “It was so exciting to be able to peel away the glamour and the artifice of that whole world.”
“Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which runs through March 10 at Signature, is a Tony-winning musical revue that takes its name from jazz pianist Fats Waller’s iconic 1929 song. In a show free of a traditional narrative, five performers work their way through Waller’s catalog with a vibrant setlist that channels the artistic and social significance of the Harlem Renaissance.
When audience members venture into the 300-seat venue, they’ll feel like they’re walking into a 1930s speak-easy. Vintage marquee lights line the balcony to enrich the period vibe. The band, traditionally hidden away in other musicals, sits in plain view to better feed off the performers and audience. Signature even dispenses with its customary announcement about silencing cellphones, so as not to break the production’s spell.
The immersion is largely achieved thanks to the flexibility of the theater, which has no fixed seating or stage and can be reconfigured to accommodate each show. While the transformation from the gym-inspired set of “Billy Elliot,” which closed Jan. 6, to the nightclub of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” would typically take about three weeks, scheduling constraints required Signature to complete that overhaul in 10 days.
To ease the transition, the Signature crew built a stage for “Billy Elliot” that could be downsized to make room for the table seating of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” then augmented and repainted to fit the new show’s aesthetic. Although the lack of permanent infrastructure adds such technical complications, it comes with the benefit of heightened creative freedom.
“It’s partly what makes Signature exciting,” Calarco says. “The surprise of what are you walking into is part of the audience’s experience.”
The “Ain’t Misbehavin’” team hopes the more ambitious design expands the story without a single change to the text. By showing the black performers slipping through the back entrance to sing at a lush club they otherwise might not be welcome at, the production alludes to the inequality of the era. The humble onstage dressing rooms also mean the performers rarely leave the stage, giving the actors more space to flesh out their characters.
“To really transform the whole space into a club was important,” Calarco says. “Historically, what does it mean for black excellence to entertain mostly white audiences? How do we talk about that, or at least make the audience think about that?
“You can never determine how an audience interprets a story. But no matter what, they’re going to see the full three-dimensional lives of these performers.”
Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington; through March 10, $40-$94.