Jam, Jive and Everything: “Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical Show”

The company; Photo by Nile Scott Photography

Presented by Greater Boston Stage Company
Co-produced with The Nora at Central Square Theater and The Front Porch Arts Collective
Conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. & Murray Horwitz
Musical Adaptions, Orchestrations, and Arrangements by ​Luther Henderson
Directed and Choreographed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent
Co-Choreographed by Ilyse Robbins
Co-Music Direction by Dan Rodriguez and David Freeman Coleman

June 9-26, 2022
Greater Boston Stage Company
395 Main Street
Stoneham, MA 02180
Runtime: 2 hours including intermission

Review by Kitty Drexel

STONEHAM, Mass. —  Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a show that builds and builds until the energy and the intensity seem unsustainable. Then it builds some more. The musical opens with the titular song and spans the great career of Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller. There is little dialogue but a lot of impressive dancing. 

The red Art Deco set by Jon Savage, Aria Pegg, and Tori Oakes transports the audience to a speakeasy deep in the bowels of New York. The audience is flanked by large-scale landscape murals depicting Black jazz musicians and dancers a la Josephine Baker. The stage extends close to the first row to give the cast plenty of room to stomp, prowl, and wiggle. Café tables are placed on the edges of stage left and right. 

A lipstick red gossamer curtain divides the extension from the stage. Band members warm up behind it. A young man (Dan Rodriguez on 6/11) in a trilby and suspenders seats himself at the piano upstage left. His entrance signals the start of the show. Poor Rodriguez will be cooed to, leaned on, and prodded during the next two hours. He has his work cut out for him.

Rodriguez (and Catherine Stornetta, 6/22-6/26) lead the band and the singers from his seat. He conducts from an upright piano. He and the entire jammed and thrummed while making sweet music with the ensemble. 

One of the theatre’s greatest pleasures is watching a cast have fun doing what they love. The cast and band of Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical Show were having the time of their lives on Saturday night. It made being in the audience extra special.

Photo by Nile Scott Photography

Company members Becky Bass, Lovely Hoffman (a triple threat who also did the show’s excellent dramaturgy), Jackson Jirard, Christina Jones, and Anthony Pires Jr engage the audience with ensemble numbers, solos, and duets. Their voices are simply gorgeous. Hoffman absolutely dominated the stage with her skill and prowess. Her rendition of “Mean to Me” blew the audience away.  I swear I heard the voice of God in the harmonies of “Black and Blue.” 

Jones and Jirard’s dancing skills were shown off to great effect. Jirard’s kicks and leaps practically hovered in mid-air during “The Viper’s Drag.”  

Not all of Wallers’ music is… lyrically stable. It can’t all be “Honeysuckle Rose.” “Yacht Club Swing,” “When the Nylons Bloom Again,” and “Fat and Greasy” didn’t age well. “Your Feet’s Too Big” may be immortalized by The Muppet Show but that doesn’t make it art. The company performs so well that the lyrics mostly don’t matter. They tell their stories so well that we can forget a little about how it’s communicated.   

“Stormy Weather,” arguably Waller’s most famous tune, is not performed in the musical. But, the song is a theme in the pre-performance music, the Overture, and the intermission. The cast does not croon it to us during performances.

There is an offstage slap in Act II. A male and female character argue offstage. It ends with an offstage slap. It wasn’t a dramatic metaphor. The audience laughed at another’s pain.

Violence for comedic effect is wrong. If it isn’t funny when a man hits a woman, then it isn’t funny when a woman hits a man. Hurting others isn’t funny.

This isn’t a family musical per se, but it is appropriate for most ages. Kids might not understand why Prohibition was enacted (I sure don’t) and the reefer references may be discomforting, but kids understand abstract concepts if given the opportunity. They understand good music. The two tater tots who attended with my date and I had a great time! They asked thoughtful questions about what they didn’t understand. We had a great discussion about the Harlem Renaissance on the car ride home.

Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical Show has everything one could want from a Harlem Renaissance jukebox musical: slick harmonies, soul, swing dancing, a bit of history, and big laughs.  Bring your kids! It’s a good time for everyone.

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