Theatre by the Sea was dead — long live Theatre by the Sea! Following a practice production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum last August, the shuttered Matunuck barn theater is open for business after being dark for four summers.
Kicking off the theater’s 75th anniversary season is Ain’t Misbehavin’, the revue of 1920s-’40s Fats Waller tunes and songs that epitomize what this kind of summer musical theater is all about: nostalgia for high-life times, when people really knew how to have fun. The Matunuck rendition is directed and choreographed with style and energy by Ken Leigh Rogers.
A shorter version of the show opened in a Manhattan cabaret 40 years ago, before being pumped up for Broadway with a book by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr. Most of the music was by Thomas “Fats” Waller, of course, the nimble-fingered jazz piano player whom fellow pianist Oscar Levant called “the black Horowitz.”
We’re instructed early on about stride piano, of which Waller was a master. The ragtime-influenced style involves the left hand keeping up a four-note bass beat while the right hand plays the melody, and we get an ongoing demonstration by Andrew Smithson, the music director of the five-piece band. The piano player pounds the keys stage center when he’s not pulled back toward the rest of the band to let the singers take over.
The three female singers are in satin and the two men sport suits, ties, and bowler and pork pie hats, and when the singers work together the stage comes alive. In “How Ya Baby?,” Starr Domingue puts down David Jennings, who is obnoxiously hitting on her, and the number develops into a brisk jitterbug routine. In “Off Time,” Jennings shows off his snappy skill in tapping through the number.
About half of the show’s 30 tunes were written by Waller, though not the lyrics. Most are from the ’20s and ’30s, but a few from the early ’40s slip in to fill out the tone of the period. A half-dozen that he didn’t write the music for are included because he made them popular, such as his first breakout hit, the 1922 “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.”
The five talented performers include one who has more than a passing resemblance to Waller. Tony Perry has the full face and lively expressions of the three black-and-white photos of Waller that hang over the stage — down to the thin mustache in one. In addition to Waller’s musical dexterity, much of his appeal was his boisterous sense of humor, so Perry’s raucous rendition of “Your Feet’s Too Big” gives a good sense of the nightclub entertainer’s antic style.
The irreverent and sometimes bawdy humor of songs like that weren’t for Tin Pan Alley, which was sort of Waller’s day job, so he had to go back to Harlem to have fun playing them. “The Viper’s Drag,” also known as “The Reefer Song,” was so much a part of that culture that it doesn’t even have a recognized lyricist. Jennings has a grand old sleepy-eyed time playing with the audience as he puffs and sings and offers people in the front row a toke.