Fats Waller, who described himself as 285 pounds of “jam, jive and everything,” was a master of the stride piano, a jazzman who began to show his signs of talent and musical genius at the age of six. While he lived less than four decades, he crammed a ton of tunes into his career knapsack, leaving a legacy of jazz favorites, enough to be packed into one lively and energized package known as “Ain’t Misbehavin.’ ”
Conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz, “Ain’t Misbehavin’ “ will be strutting its sensational stuff at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre until Sunday, November 20. With a set reminiscent of the Savoy Ballroom or the Cotton Club, thanks to John Lee Beatty, you’ll think you’ve been transported to Harlem, circa 1925, for a fantastic voyage masquerading as a simple musical revue.
Your tour guides on this merry trip are splendid: Eugene Barry-Hill, Doug Eskew, Kecia Lewis-Evans, Cynthia Thomas and Debra Walton. Each a star in their own right, they bring Fats Waller’s tunes to brilliant light, showcasing almost three dozen songs, like “Honeysuckle Rose,” “T Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” “Lounging at the Waldorf,” “Squeeze Me” and “Black and Blue.” Humorous numbers like “Your Feet’s Too Big” and “Fat and Greasy” are over the top while “The Jitterbug Waltz” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” are sentimental favorites.
On opening night, with director Richard Maltby, Jr. in the house with his co-conceiver Murray Horwitz, the joint was truly jumpin.’ Wes Yarbor, an Alvin Ailey dancer from New York, who now works at a Hamden dance studio, who saw the original show on Broadway, thought the Long Wharf version was “phenomenal. For a small theater, Long Wharf is giving the show a full production, complete with a sliding piano across the stage. The great voices use tricks to make people laugh. The five performers are all stars. New Haven has bought itself a winner.”
The cast certainly knows how to “spread rhythm around;” they are hep cats with attitude and flair, who respond to Phillip Hall’s inspired piano playing and Arthur Faria’s delightful musical staging and choreography. This is a show not to be missed. Gail Baldoni’s glorious costumes are worth the trip all by themselves.
For tickets ($40-70), call Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, at 203-787-4282 or online at www.longwharf.org. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m, Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
An Open House for the whole family will be held Saturday, November 19 from 9 a.m. to noon. This Discovery Day for your little superheroes has a suggested donation of $5 a family or $2 a person and snacks will be available.
The story goes that Fats Waller was once kidnapped by gangsters and “invited” to play at Al Capone’s birthday party…for three days. Come hear the magic and the melody for yourself, the music of Fats Waller, a man who was said to be able to make a piano sing.