BWW Review: Celebrating Fats Waller with Eight O'Clock Theatre's AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' at the Central Park Performing Arts Center
"I'm white inside, but that don't help my case/'Cause I can't hide what is on my face/I'm so forlorn/ Life's just a thorn/My heart is torn...Why was I born?" --lyrics from Fats Waller's "Black and Blue"
Jazz great Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller died at the age of 39, leaving behind a library of so many great, bouncy and bluesy tunes. With his Harlem stride style, he created spirited piano classics--some of the sauciest, sassiest, most ribald songs of the 1920's and 1930's. AIN'T MISBEHAVIN', named after Waller's second most famous song ("Honeysuckle Rose" would be his first), is a musical revue first staged in 1978 where the Waller hits just keep on coming.
"Fats Waller always played to a packed house," Adam Clayton Powell Jr. eulogized at Waller's packed-house funeral in 1943. Clayton's statement still holds true, because Eight O'Clock Theatre's production of it certainly played to a packed house. And a rather enthusiastic one.
The show's ballsy and busty, sultry and smoky. To tackle a production like this, which is non-stop joyous music and energy, a special cast must be assembled. And here's where the Eight O'Clock Theatre production mostly shines: Dwuany Cannon Jr., Lady Jean, Sabrina Hamilton, and especially Latoya McCormick and Tron Montgomery. Good as the majority of the group is, some vocals were occasionally all over the place. At times intoxicating; at other times, intoxicated, i.e. drunken-sounding. And that's probably the point (we are supposed to be in a night club). Sometimes one of the performers would seem hesitant, unsure, lacking confidence, looking at the others for their choreography. But again, maybe this was a character choice of sorts in a show like this.
In the cast, Lady Jean is an exciting onstage presence, and Ms. Hamilton reminded of the time I first saw her six years ago--singing a rafter-shaking "Aquarius" in EOT's Hair. Dwuany Cannon performs "Honeysuckle Rose" with Ms. Hamilton for all it's worth, hitting the note and begging the audience for applause. Mr. Cannon also sings the hilarious "Your Feet's Too Big" marvelously, but so much more could have been done with the number.
Latoya McCormick has Goliath-sized talent. Her work on "When the Nylons Bloom Again" should be required viewing for anyone interested in musical theatre. In each of her numbers, she radiates the singular joy or performing and the feeling of owning a stage. (Plus her singing voice is outlandishly glorious.) .
Tron Montgomery steals the show. "Aint Nobody's Business" proves that if you give him the stage floor, he'll take it over. His "Viper," where he slinks and struts around the stage, giddily gyrating his groin, stands as one of the highlights of the production. Does he out-Viper Andre DeShields, who originated the role and the song on Broadway 40 years ago? I won't go that far (no one for my money could ever out-Viper the brilliant Mr. DeShields), but Mr. Montgomery sure gives him a run for his money.
Mr. Montgomery and Mr. Cannon provide marvelous fun in their duet, "Fat and Greasy,' with the audience clapping along. (The show could have used more of the energy of audience involvement throughout.) Best of all, when Mr. Montgomery and Ms. McCormick come together for their Act 2 duet, "That Ain't Right," it's as if we died and went to musical theatre heaven. I could watch that number by these two souls for eternity.
The show doesn't always sustain its energy, its excitement, but every time Ms. McCormick and Mr. Montgomery were onstage, it came mighty close.
My favorite number in the whole production became the bleaker "Black and Blue," a solemn, bluesy ode to people of color back in the 1930's. The five performers just sit in chairs, facing the audience, each weary and resigned. The simplicity of the staging works. The song's power along with the cast's wondrous harmonies hit just the right notes. So effective, this less-is-more approach. Musical theatre doesn't get any better than this.
Perhaps the real star of the show is Musical Director William Coleman, playing the piano and decked out head to toe as Fats Waller. He never leaves the stage and his playing carries the show's entire pacing (it moves bullet-train fast). Later in the show, an entire band appears onstage and supports Coleman: Brooke Stuart on drums; Dan Kalosky on bass; Joe Bonelli on trumpet; and Tony Fuoco on reeds. They sound marvelous.
Director/Choreographer James Grenelle does a fine job with his cast. The choreography is sometimes a bit messy, and again, we don't know if that's purposeful or not. This is the kind of show where messiness isn't necessarily a death knell. Grenelle does his usual fine work here, but you feel it could be even more at times. Perhaps the whole things would have been made more effective in a more intimate setting, or by placing more tables on stage and around the audience (where viewers could sit) for a more immersive approach.
Dalton Hamilton's stage design is simple and effective, set up like a rather no-frills nightclub: A piano bookended by two tables with liquor bottles and glasses. Hamilton's evocative Fosse-like lighting is really put to good use throughout. Debbi Lastinger's spot-on costumes also appropriately help underscore the mood and time period.
There's also a pungent mist machine that makes it seem like we've ventured into a smoky Harlem club--a little too smoke-filled at times for my tastes, on the verge of headache-inducing.
This particular production was not part of Eight O'Clock Theatre's main season and only ran for two shows (it closed on Saturday, January 4th). Even with its packed houses, it's a shame more people couldn't get to experience the show and, more specifically, The Miracles that are Latoya McCormick and Tron Montgomery for more than two performances. Whenever the two of them graced the stage, it's time to paraphrase one of Fats Waller's more famous quotes: "It's so nice, it should be illegal."