This high-energy all singing, all dancing revue evokes the delightful humor and infectious spirit of the American original Fats Waller! Featuring 30 songs he made famous in a career that ranged from the Cotton Club to Hollywood and concert stages across the world including “This Joint Is Jumpin’,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’!”
Broadway hit “Ain’t Misbehavin’” has always been lauded for capturing the sense of optimism that bubbled throughout the Harlem Renaissance, that explosion of African-American artistic creativity that began in 1920s New York.
Onstage at Winter Park Playhouse, the Fats Waller musical revue lives up to its reputation. There’s a joy that percolates this celebration of the great composer-musician and energetic hits such as “’Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do” and “The Joint is Jumpin’” while capturing the times from which this celebrated music comes.
Occasionally, those times feel dated. When Faith Boles and Patrece Bloomfield sing how they keep their men happy by letting them always have their way, well, a modern eyebrow might raise. But the song remains palatable, as the women cannily suggest that perhaps they really aren’t always giving in — and that their relationships possibly aren’t the best anyway.
It also helps that Boles and Bloomfield can sing, as well as sell a number with panache. This is something all five of director Roy Alan’s stars have in common, and he lets them do their thing.
Late in the show’s first half, some of the goofiness becomes too much as a running gag about female singers getting gigs more for their looks than their talent runs out of steam. But all is redeemed in a whammo run of fine numbers in the second act, giving each performer a chance to shine.
Meka King gives a wink to the good-time “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” while Shonn McCloud puts his resonant baritone to good comic use in “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Deejay Young slinks and vamps his way through “The Viper’s Drag/The Reefer Song” with its lyrics about a joint that’s “5 feet long.” Young also gets to face off against Bloomfield in a charged-up “That Ain’t Right.”
Not all is fun and games, though — social commentary on the prewar years raises its head from time to time as “Lounging at the Waldorf” paints a picture of distinct white and black communities. Her voice heavy with emotion, Boles sings about a woman mistreated in “Mean to Me.” And the company asks the haunting questions “Why was I born?” and “What did I do to be so black and blue” in a contemplation of black hardship.
In all their harmonies, but especially “Black and Blue,” the performers display a smooth blend. Their musicality is augmented by music director Christopher Leavy’s six-piece band, which just about always strikes a perfect balance with the singers. (Though, since the musicians are onstage, they could try to look like they are enjoying themselves.)
William Elliott’s scenic Cotton Club design cleverly adds levels to the stage, which creates the illusion of a bigger space while retaining the Playhouse’s trademark intimacy.
In other words, this “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a dandy way to acquaint yourself with Waller’s works, or revisit them like the old friends they are.