Fats and Wilde

Ain’t Misbehavin’ in Beverly, An Ideal Husband in Wellesley  
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  June 7, 2006


AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’: Jam, jive, and everything.

Fats Waller played stride piano. But in the exuberant Ain’t Misbehavin’ at North Shore Music Theatre (through June 18), he plays ride piano. Musical director Darryl G. Ivey’s Fats figure — “my mother’s 285 pounds of jam, jive, and everything” — emerges from a trap door already banging the title melody, and he and his instrument proceed to scoot about the round stage like the ivory-tickling eye of a storm. Then, about halfway through the first act, after succulent renditions of such comparatively staid Waller tunes as “Honeysuckle Rose” and “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling,” the storm rises to Lear-like proportions and Ivey has to run for cover behind another piano in the midst of an excellent jazz combo as the show’s five singers take over the stage, turning it into a wild Harlem club of the 1920s-’40s where the dancing is loose, the sung talk is frank, the sexual rivalry is electric, and the gin is swilled straight from the bottle.

It’s no surprise that this show is such naughty, irrepressible fun. The Tony-winning 1978 musical revue built by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr. on the broad back of composer/performer Thomas “Fats” Waller is among the best of such compilations. Waller’s jazzy, insinuating ditties run the gamut from smutty honey to catchy syncopation and gorgeous blues. And Elliot Norton Award–winning director Kent Gash, who considers Ain’t Misbehavin’ “the finest musical revue ever created for Broadway,” has staged it before — notably in 2004 at Trinity Rep with Ivey, the same designers, and some of the same cast. The challenge at the larger, pie-shaped NSMT, with its big wedges of audience, is that the venue is a lot of joint to get jumpin’. And opening night got off to an alarming start when a performer fell in the first few minutes. Then again, this show might knock anybody on her ass. And NaTasha Yvette Williams was not about to pull a James Levine; she was up shaking her booty and X-rating the baby-doll lyrics of “Squeeze Me” in no time.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a well-constructed revue, its range of Walleriana stretching from 1922 to 1943 (the year the incorrigible musician died at 39) to include barnstormers like “How Ya Baby” and “The Joint Is Jumpin’” interspersed with slinky, innuendo-laced jazz (“The Jitterbug Waltz”), blues (the abused woman’s lament “Mean to Me,” rendered here in creamy stillness by Monique Midgette), and down-and-dirty novelty numbers (“Find Out What They Like,” delivered with a mix of mock-elegance and butt-shaking audacity by Midgette and Williams, and “Fat and Greasy,” performed by Ken Robinson and Joe Wilson Jr. as if dripping aural oleo). But the coup of Gash’s production, here as it was at Trinity, is its turn on a dime from the comic disgust of “Fat and Greasy” to a seated five-part rendition of “Black and Blue” in a vocal arrangement by William Elliott that counters the song’s self-laceration with a harmonic beauty that’s as melting as it is mournful.

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Related: Serious business, Stridin’ with Fats, Wilde thing, More more >
  Topics: Theater , James Levine, Joe Wilson, Oscar Wilde,  More more >
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