‘Ain’t Misbehavin’,’ the Fats Waller Musical, Is Definitely Phat!

Classic Music That Still Seems Fresh
By RICK MELLERUP | Aug 27, 2019
Photo by: Studio 63

Beach Haven — The pantheon of songwriters who created the Great American Songbook, the canon of the most important and influential popular songs from the 1920s through the 1950s when hits tended to come from the worlds of Broadway and Hollywood, has been pretty much carved in granite. George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers are on American music’s Mount Rushmore while Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen are perhaps the prime candidates for a fifth spot.

But “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” playing at Beach Haven’s Surflight Theatre through Sept. 8, shows that Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller should definitely be in that “fifth spot” conversation.

Waller is best remembered as a giant – both musically and physically – stride style jazz pianist. But he was also a prolific composer who copyrighted over 400 songs. Like Gershwin, who knows how many great songs he could have written if he hadn’t died at an early age – Gershwin passed away at 38 and Waller at 39.

Indeed, had Waller lived, he might have become a noted Broadway composer on top of a jazz great. In 1929 he wrote the music for “Hot Chocolates” a successful all-black Broadway revue that re-created the Harlem Renaissance musical scene for whites who were too frightened to travel above Central Park North. But he broke new ground in 1943 when he composed the music for “Early to Bed,” a white show with a book. “Early to Bed” was a hit, running for 380 performances, a very good number in those days.

“Early to Bed” is forgotten today, and Waller might have been as well with the exception of dedicated jazz fans. But in 1978, a revue opened on Broadway named after one of Waller’s best-known songs, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and it turned out to be a smash, running for 1,604 performances and winning 1978’s Best Musical Tony.

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is stuffed with Waller songs, as well as a handful of other Harlem Renaissance Era tunes such as Porter Grainger’s and Everett Robbins’ “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do.” They show that Waller’s range was as great as his girth. Some Waller songs are lively, some are humorous, some are sophisticated, and some are bluesy and downright poignant.

The lively “The Joint is Jumping” is a paean to Harlem’s rent parties when tenants would hire a musician or musicians to play at a party where a hat would be passed around to collect quarters for the month’s rent. The song is the revue’s first-act closer, and it leaves you begging for more.

The humorous “Your Feet’s Too Big” actually wasn’t written by Waller, but rather by Fred Fisher, a Tin Pan Alley music publisher, with lyrics by Ada Benson. But it became associated with Waller thanks to a 1939 recording that featured his ad-libs. The original started out:

Who’s that walkin’ round her?

Mercy, sounds like baby patter, baby elephant patter, that’s what

I call it.

Say up in Harlem at a table for two

There were four of us, me, your big feet and you.

From your ankles up, I’d say you sure look sweet

From there down there’s just too much feet

 

Waller, a consummate showman who often mixed comedy with his piano playing and singing, added lines such as “Your pedal extremities are colossal, to me you look just like a fossil.”

On the other hand, you can’t get much more sophisticated than the show’s title song. It easily matches the best work of Gershwin or Porter.

As for bluesy and poignant, one need look no farther than his incredible “Black and Blue,” composed for the “Hot Chocolates” revue. It later became a hit for the blues singer Ethel Waters and, especially, Louis Armstrong, who recorded it several times. Its lyrics were penned by frequent Waller collaborator Andy Razaf.

I always thought Armstrong had the best arrangement of the song. But the arrangement in “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” sung by the entire cast, has me thinking twice.

And what a cast it is! Michael A. Blackmon, Monica Josette, Brandi Chavonne Massey, Helen Marla White and Andre Dion Wills all have their individual moments.

Blackmon’s comes when he performs “The Viper’s Drag,” written by Waller as a dance tune for a ragtime dance called a slow drag. His performance is positively reptilian.

Wills’ moment is his performance of “Your Feet’s Too Big.”

As for the ladies, they shine when singing torch songs – Josette’s “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” Massey’s “Mean to Me” and White’s “Squeeze Me.”

When they all join together, especially in “Black and Blue,” it’s as if one throat and one set of lips are doing the singing, so impeccably well-timed is their delivery.

Indeed, the entire show is tight, thanks to the direction and choreography of Randy Andre Davis and musical direction of Christopher Davis, who leads the six-piece onstage band. The only shame is that the rest of the musicians sometimes cover up his fine piano playing.

Look, a revue is a revue is a revue. “Ain’t Misbehavin’” isn’t great theater, but it is a great musical, thanks to – duh – its incredible music.

And look, most of you are unlikely to go to Harlem to hear some great music. But luckily old-time Harlem has come to Surflight, and folks, the joint is definitely jumpin’!

Tickets are $39 for adults and $29 for children 12 years of age and younger and may be purchased online at surflight.org, by phone at 609-492-9477 or at the box office, located at 201 Engleside Ave.

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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