Photo: Jeff Bellante
Fats knew his music, as does this cast
An innovative, accomplished jazz pianist, Fats Waller composed an amazing number of bestselling songs that made it to Broadway shows, radio and film. Known for originating stride piano (the right hand plays melody, the left hand tinkles a single base note on the strong beat and chord on the weak beat), his creations were the forerunners of rap and hip-hop. (Kennedy Center artistic director for jazz and MacArthur Fellow Jason Moran with Meshell Ndegeocello have brought Fats Waller Dance Party to North America venues for the last several years, attracting a young, diverse group.) Pumping out hit after hit in the 1920s through the early 1940s (two of his hits made the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame), Waller knew how to get a crowd out on the dance floor. And he was funny.
The actors who embrace his spirit and style in The Gateway’s current production, “Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical” share his Harlem-style joie de vivre from the get-go and they interact frequently with the audience on stage and in the aisles. “Like my dress?” murmurs Lavon Fisher-Wilson, fingering her beaded period costume to a patron in an end seat during the first number. This cast has as much fun as they project.
The premise of the show is 29 of his songs (Waller was astoundingly prolific in his short 39-year life; he wrote 334 titles) and starts out with the headline song and company against a classy Art Deco backdrop, a set emulating a nightclub. And the orchestra, whooee! They’re an integral part of this production, who wail it out with bass, drums, trombone, trumpet and woodwinds. And piano strides.
The sequences are fast-paced and loaded with humor. Danielle Lee Greaves got a reaction from one gentleman she picked out in “Squeeze Me,” with “I just got so…” and a suggestive wink. “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” was a popular clarinet solo played by musician great Benny Goodman and Fisher-Wilson sings it expansively with shaking left hip and hair. In “How Ya Baby,” T. Oliver Reid turns on the charm with Debra Walton, who shrinks at first (“Help me,” she mouths), then lets loose when they swing it out and shimmy. Simply put, it’s a stunner.
A hilarious surprise is “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Kingsley Leggs walks a pretty young woman up on stage to act as his honey and sings to her about her less-than-attractive appendages (“I can see when they lay you in the casket, your feet sticking out of the basket.”)
The whole show is a happy standout, although T. Oliver Reid’s slithering, seductive rendition of “The Viper’s Drag” as a sexual reefer was a mesmerizing journey into a druggie’s soul, and Fisher-Wilson’s “Mean to Me,” a torch song to an inattentive lover, got a shout-out for her heartfelt rendition and soaring last note.
The stars, Fisher-Wilson (“Newsies,” “Chicago,” “The Color Purple”), Greaves (“Rent,” “Hairspray,” “Showboat), Leggs (“Sister Act,” “The Color Purple,” “Miss Saigon”), Reid (“Kiss Me Kate,” “After Midnight,” “Mary Poppins”) and Walton (“The Pajama Game,” “The Life and Times of Alberta Hunter”) are all accomplished Broadway alums, most with national tours under their belt, and they all have significant television cachet. They’re a finely tuned talented unit, who perform their songs and the brilliant choreography as if they’ve been doing this for years. The set is Art Deco glamour and the costumes are gorgeous styles with the sweetheart necklines and beaded details of the times (remember your grandmother’s stone martens?). And the orchestra … they raise the roof! If William Knowles (piano), Philip Bowler (bass), Napoleon Revels-Bey (drums), Clarence Banks (trombone), Endre Rice (trumpet) and Roberg Carten (woodwinds) got together with the cast for a gala, “The Joint Is Jumpin’” would be an understatement.
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