STRIDING The talented performers in the Lyric’s production are at their best when they sing together.
If the current campaign against obesity means we have to hate Fats Waller, well, to hell with it. The rowdy, raunchy, syncopated tunes of the ivory-striding Harlem Renaissance legend are irresistible — as can be Ain't Misbehavin', the Tony-winning 1978 Broadway revue Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz built on them. The durable show has come this way often enough, from the touring version of the Broadway original to the 30th-anniversary reprise starring American Idol winner Ruben Studdard, not to mention homegrown servings by the Huntington Theatre Company, Trinity Rep, and North Shore Music Theatre. But the Lyric Stage Company revival (through December 17) is, at least in its first act, oddly stilted — as if Fats had changed his name to Avoirdupois.
Things improve after intermission, when the five talented performers seem to relax into the material rather than sell it hard and cutesy. The second act also evokes more the aura of Harlem in its renaissance, from the dolled-up liveliness of the club scene, to the all-night rent parties, to the stoned dissipation. Alas, director Josie Bray's vaudeville- and Charleston-derived choreography remains both limited and repetitive throughout. As the resident Fats figure, however, Calvin Braxton proves amiable, easygoing, and mischievous. And he shows how a large man can cut a rug — or, in this case, the faux-tiled floor before set designer David Towlun's whimsical proscenium of piano keys backed by trombone parts.
The show's five performers are both energetic and talented, though each sounds better on some songs than others. And when warbling together, they prove more than the sum of their parts. In particular, that quietly sorrowful indictment of racial inequity "Black and Blue" (written, with frequent Waller collaborator Andy Razaf, for the 1929 revue Hot Chocolates) finds the singers in near darkness, at far corners of the playing space, as they pass off individual lyrics before joining their trained voices on some achingly lovely harmonies. "Handful of Keys," in which the singers collaborate fast and furiously to explain syncopation, also proves virtuosic, if less affecting.
Of course, the prolific Waller (who is said to have copyrighted some 400 songs before dying in 1943 at age 39) wrote as many frisky, slinkily suggestive, and novelty tunes as he did blues. And a healthy sampling of all meet the ear in Ain't Misbehavin', from "Honeysuckle Rose," "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" to the title song to "Your Feet's Too Big" and the insinuative "Fat and Greasy" (on which the audience is easily seduced into a sing-along). The repertoire represented runs the chronological gamut from the 1919 "Squeeze Me" to a medley of World War II tunes that includes "Cash for your Trash" and "When the Nylons Bloom Again."
The supplest performer in the Lyric production is Davron S. Monroe, delightedly drugged and sinewy on "The Viper's Drag/The Reefer Song" and convincingly edgy in the well-sung and sharply acted domestic dispute — with Robin Long — that Bray makes of "That Ain't Right." Going solo, Long mixes equal parts baby doll and double entendre into "Squeeze Me." Lori Tishfield is the kewpie of the piece, the intriguingly named Lovely Hoffman its torcher. Hoffman makes the smoky most of "Mean to Me" and, with Long, brings a somehow demure shimmy to "Find Out What They Like." Longtime Forbidden Broadway pianist Catherine Stornetta serves as musical director and heads up the able jazz band whose largely invisible contribution pushes along a show that picks up as it hits its (you should forgive the expression) stride.