Fats Waller and Friends Still Swingin’ and Jivin’
by Kim Waldron
Picture two men dressed to the nines, bowler hats to spats, with three women, draped in purple, shimmery green and scarlet dresses. They dance and sing to “Handful of Keys,” Fats Waller’s 1933 love song to the piano.
Suddenly, the dapper five line up across the stage without missing a step. They extend right and left hands and demonstrate how to play stride piano. It’s a stunner, the simultaneous juggle of feet and hands while singing, all five looking like they’re having a ball every minute.
We’re at a lively, raunchy party, with sex, drugs, and jazz all the way.
In 1978, Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz created “Ain’t Misbehavin’” based on the music Waller popularized from the 20s to the mid-40s. There’s no real plot, and few lines of dialogue. It’s a revue, song after song of Waller’s music—and that new thing called swing— reviving Harlem’s rent parties, low dives, and swank nightclubs.
“Stride” piano technique comes from Jazz Age “hot” music. Rhythmic and lively, it transforms popular dance music. Created by players with formal training, stride music has more complexity than ragtime. Stride musicians improvised, giving birth to the jazz we know today.
The show opens with a recording of Waller himself at the keys, a transporting tribute. Then, the well-practiced stage band takes over. They’re good, but a word of warning to jazz fans: If you like your jazz to be, well, jazzy, 42nd Street Moon brings us Broadway’s take on swing, not Harlem’s. It’s “musical theater jazz,” and will disappoint hard-core jazz fans.
However, the band clearly pleased the opening night audience at 42nd Street Moon. The woman at my right kept poking her husband who joined in singing his favorites.
Branden Noel Thomas, in big box plaid suit, plays Fats. He has Waller’s relaxed, roguish demeanor, as well as the composer’s sly comic asides. He’s dressed to show Fats’ girth, but still cuts impressive dance steps. In solo or duet, he’s a delight to behold.
The remaining characters are figures we would meet in the Harlem of the era. The other male, Aris-Allen Roberson, stops the show with “The Viper’s Drag.” Roberson nails it. He’s a dope dealer performing a slinky, snake-hips dance in a dream of a “five foot reefer.” In a copper-colored suit and spectacularly horrible 40s tie, he’s a devil of a dancer.
Erica Richardson and Katrina Lauren McGraw are dynamite in “Find Out What They Like,” experienced girlfriends sharing their expertise in how to beguile men. The friends score some impressive bling, and Richardson and McGraw enjoy singing about it so much, we enjoy every minute.
Ashley Gallo can sing and dance with the best, and her comedic chops go on display in an amateur competition with the “Yacht Club Swing.”
Richardson’s glares and leers fascinate me, then McGraw captures me with that high-pitched note. Thomas gets that mischievous look, then Gallo sings off key on purpose. Then Roberson does a split, and it’s hard to know where to look.
All five have masterful chemistry with each other, which pays off in the ensemble pieces. The terrific rent party song “The Joint is Jumping” stands out, even without those whistles and sirens at the end.
“Black and Blue,” the song about Jim Crow, gets the respect it deserves. The ensemble stops dancing—they sit on stools as the stage lights turn dark blue. Singers alternate lines while exposing their bruises, inflicted by racial brutality.
Soon we’re back to a lively party. “Ain’t Misbehavin’” closes with each singer imitating a band instrument with voice and hand gestures, until they all join together to “play” as a band—a joyous, knockout ending.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical Show,” conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz, directed by Jeffrey Polk, by 42nd Street Moon, at Gateway Theatre, through Sunday, October 29, 2017. Info: 42ndstmoon.org
Cast: Ashley D. Gallo, Katrina Lauren McGraw, Erica Richardson, Arís-Allen Roberson, and Branden ‘Noel’ Thomas.