Fun with ‘Fats’

Published: Friday, February 8, 2019 By: Bruce Apar Source: Bruce The Blog

It’s because we live in a time where headlines equal headaches that the simple pleasure of a throwback musical like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is such a welcome escape from our love affair with simple-minded politics. The “Fats Waller Musical Show,” as it is sub-titled, has the joint jumpin’ at Westchester Broadway Theatre (WBT) through Feb. 24. (Tickets and info at BroadwayTheatre.com; 914-592-2222).

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a joyful, faithful homage to the Harlem Renaissance. That’s the era of the 1920s and ’30s that saw the emergence of swing dovetail with jazz and ragtime to forge an exciting new genre of music.

Thomas “Fats” Waller, celebrated originator of stride piano playing—the forerunner of jazz pianism that alternates left-hand bass notes with right-hand melody lines—took the bouncing ball and ran with it, as did like-minded composers of his time, jointly giving birth to the early American song book. This is the music that high society flocked to hear at the swankiest Manhattan venues of the day, like the Cotton Club.

In the midst of 21st century data overload, what could be more elegant and unstressful than drinking in five song-and-dance troupers commanding the stage, backed by a brassy, swinging septet, acting out one timeless classic after another. (At the WBT dinner theater, you literally can drink it in, along with a hearty, affordable meal to boot.) 

It’s not as if you’ll recognize every one of these tunes. I didn’t. Some titles will instantly strike a chord, such as “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’” and the title tune. Their familiarity nearly a century after they were created is due in large part to the phenomenal success and staying power of the show’s original staging 40 years ago, when it was named Best Musical at the Tony Awards.

One of the hallmarks of this production is that it is directed by the legendary Richard Maltby Jr. who picked up a Directing Tony for the Broadway original, which he conceived with Murray Horwitz. The opening night audience, in fact, got a treat when he appeared on stage to be honored for his lifetime of musical theater artistry.

Not being familiar with most of the songs in this show, which I was not myself, makes the thrill of discovering them all the more satisfying. Great popular music like that which flowed from the genius of Fats Waller doesn’t stay stuck in the time and place it was conceived. It transcends time and place. Besides, there’s nothing like finding great new music that’s been around almost a century.

That much is proven more than 20-fold – the number of production numbers in the revue—at WBT. The melodies and lyrics range from comic to romantic to sassy to silky. I especially enjoyed the broad antics of “Your Feet’s Too Big” and “Fat and Greasy.” Other standouts are “How Ya Baby,” “The Viper’s Drag” (aka “The Reefer Song”), and “Find out What They Like.” In the multi-talented hands, feet, voices and comedic mugging of principal performers Martine Allard, Ron Lucas, Tony Perry, Amy Jo Phillips, and Anita Welch, it’s as if you’re watching a cast not of five but 15-20.

Contributing mightily to the excitement on stage is a swing combo led by William Foster McDaniel on keyboards, with Jay Mack on drums, David Dunaway on bass, Brian Uhl on trumpet, Steve Bliefuss on trombone, Robert Carten on reeds.