Musicals, by definition, feature very simple plots. Thus, in Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical, you might reasonably expect to learn a little about the life of this famous musician of the Harlem Renaissance. For instance, about how Thomas Wright Waller began playing the piano at age six, about how he became a professional musician at age 15, about how he was once kidnapped at gunpoint and asked to play at Al Capone’s birthday party, or about how he copyrighted over 400 songs, many of which he co-wrote. However, this “musical” features almost no narrative, so expect to just sit back and listen to many (28!) Fats Waller songs.
The show, directed by Art Gilliard, founder and artistic director of Art Forms and Theatre Concepts, opened last night at the Footlight Players Theatre. The five-member cast features three women — Lori Johnson, Lisa M. Montgomery, Sonja C. Deas-Reed — and two men — John Smalls and Javar White. The set, designed and constructed by David Fielding (who, incidentally, also played the suave, debonair bartender), is a bar/nightclub. A crude painting of Fats Waller hangs on the back curtain. The stage is divided between tables and chairs of the nightclub and the bar which sits next to the band. Note: if you want to see all of the band members, be sure to sit to the left. Otherwise, the view’s obscured.
The cast members don’t play characters (White actually announces them in the second half of the musical revue by their real-life names), but act as singers and audience members in a nightclub.
Some of the vocal performances are more successful than others. The opening number is energetic and engaging and the cast’s personalities shine in the fun, feel-good tunes. Most of the women’s voices are good, but there’s some unevenness and sometimes the range seems a little high for them. In some spots the music drowns out the voices, especially in the beginning, where, at times, the lyrics are unfortunately lost.
The most spirited numbers are those in which the cast sings together; there are lots of nice harmonies and group synergy. Other highlights include White’s slithering rendition of “The Viper’s Drag.” In Deas-Reed’s heart-wrenching rendition of “Mean to Me,” we can feel the anguish; her talent is also apparent in songs like “Black and Blue.” Small’s version of “Your Feet’s Too Big” is hilarious; with his smooth voice and demeanor, the comic actor Smalls is always a star. An interesting anti-feminist message appears in Deas-Reed and Montgomery’s duet “Find Out What They Like.” The biggest crowd pleaser, though, is “Fat and Greasy,” where the two singers, Smalls and White, elicit audience participation.
The band is outstanding. Howard Nathan Brown, Sr., the musical director and Fats himself, plays a mean piano. In fact, all of the band members are great: saxophonist Leroy Small, drummer Max Moore, and bass player Geoffrey Brown. It’s almost worth going just to listen to the band.
The choreography, by Myra Chamble, is not overly ambitious. Most of the cast are not dancers, but the simple moves are fun and don’t distract from the singing.
The lighting by Richard Heffner is simple and appropriately dim for a nightclub ambience. There are no real special effects, but the lighting grows dimmer as the night goes on. In the classier “Waldorf” section, spotlights are used to showcase the performers.
The costumes by Veronica Cohen have flair and creatively reflect the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. Cohen chose a classy color scheme of red, white, and black. In the first half, the women have boas, long strings of pearls, and flowers in their hair; the men are in suits and ties. The bartender wears a white shirt and tie. For the second half, costumes are more upscale and elegant: the cast is dressed to the nines: men in tuxes and top hats, women in long evening gowns and stoles, with long gloves, hats and diamonds. “Fats,” Howard Nathan Brown, Sr., is in a white shirt, black vest and bowtie, and top hat—just right for his character.
Overall, the performance is a bit lackluster. It drags on some of the slower songs and becomes a little monotonous since there’s very little dialogue to break up all the singing and because there’s no intermission in the hour and 30 minute show. While the audience seemed to enjoy much of it, the show is somewhat uneven and seems to cry out for plot and overall structure. The biggest disappointment is that we don’t learn about Fats Waller (not even in the program notes); we’re only privy to his timeless songs.