Story: Despite the objections of his clergyman father, Thomas “Fats” Waller decided on a life as an entertainer in the early 20th century. A classically trained musician and a lover of Bach organ preludes, Waller became renowned as a jazz pianist and composer who hit the top of the pop charts in the 1920s and ‘30s. That was no mean feat for a black man, but Waller often received a pittance for compositions that later became huge popular hits for white producers and performers.
While successful on Tin Pan Alley, Waller preferred the ambience of his native Harlem, contributing to the Harlem Renaissance with the new sounds of ‘swing’ and ‘Harlem stride.’ Decades after his youthful death from pneumonia, devotee Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr. conceived the idea of putting together a Broadway revue focused on Waller’s works. The show, which featured a cast including St. Louis native Ken Page, Nell Carter, Andre DeShields, Armelia McQueen, Charlayne Woodard and Luther Henderson at the piano, was a huge hit, running for more than 1,600 performances and winning the 1978 Tony Award for Best Musical.
Highlights: Stages St. Louis, which presented Ain’t Misbehavin’ previously in 1990, sets this rendition with its characters essaying the roles of that original Broadway cast, a clever touch by director and musical stager Michael Hamilton. Thus, we have not only Page represented by the very agreeable Dwelvan David, but native son and daughter Eric Lajuan Summers and Willena Vaughn grandly impersonating DeShields and Carter, respectively. Add sultry Raena White as McQueen, the vivacious Wendy Lynette Fox as Woodard and St. Louis jazz master Adaron “Pops” Jackson as Henderson and the joint is jumpin’ with jazz and pizzazz.
Other Info: The show, divided into two equal acts, is chockfull of delightful entertainment, with performers sparkling both on the many captivating ensemble efforts as well as individual numbers. Their performances are enriched by James Wolk’s handsome set design, which features a handsome portrait of Waller above a beautiful semi-circle of 88 keys, with a six-piece combo of talented musicians adding an extra dimension to this Stages performance with actual ‘live’ music.Ably complementing Jackson at the keyboard with a rich interpretation of the dozens of captivating tunes are Jason Swagler on alto clarinet, Kendrick Smith on tenor clarinet, trombonist Cody Henry, trumpeter Matt Bittles, Jahmal Nichols on bass and drummer Bernard Long Jr.
Wolk additionally incorporates signs for a radio studio as well as an appealing array of vinyl depictions of Waller standards, all luxuriously illuminated with Matthew McCarthy’s resplendent lighting. Lou Bird costumes the players in appealing attire that befits the high-living, robust-loving life that Waller himself enjoyed. The choreography contributed by Peggy Taphorn is lively, energetic and intoxicating, oscillating between the quick moves on The Joint Is Jumpin’, Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do and the title tune to the more refined Jitterbug Waltz and the humorous and mischievous Viper’s Drag, with Summers slithering his way through an amusing impersonation of a beguiling dude on the demon weed.
White, Vaughn and Fox make for a fine ‘40s girls’ trio on the 1943 number, When the Nylons Bloom Again, while Vaughn and David are an affecting duo warbling Honeysuckle Rose. David laments a woman whose overwhelming defect is that Your Feet’s Too Big, while the entire ensemble croons the pensive ballad, Black and Blue.
Henderson added musical adaptations, orchestrations and arrangements to the original Broadway revue, which featured choreography and musical staging by Arthur Faria. While Waller composed the music for most of the show’s tunes, a number of lyricists collaborated on the witty, jaunty or soulful lyrics, depending on the song, while some tunes written entirely by other artists are included because Waller made them into hits. The latter category is highlighted in the show’s robust finale, which includes standards such as I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed and It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.
Thanks to Hamilton’s astute, clear direction, for two and a half brisk, invigorating hours the Stages audience is transported back to Harlem nights when “Fats” Waller set the tone and the style for musical mastery and infectious good times.
Musical: Ain’t Misbehavin’
Group: Stages St. Louis
Venue: Reim Theatre, Kirkwood Civic Center, 111 South Geyer Road
Dates: Through July 1
Tickets: From $15 to $55; contact 821-2407 or stagesstlouis.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak