Despite a recording that plays back a few words from the man himself during the opening moments, Ain’t Misbehavin’ is void of dialog. It’s a musical revue, first seen in 1978, that both celebrates and pays tribute to the music of Fats Waller, and it’s a ton of toe-tapping, raunchy fun with songs that continue to bounce inside your head long after the show has concluded.
Make no mistake, Ain’t Misbehavin’ isn’t simply a show that gives you the chance to hear the Fats Waller library live, like a concert version of his greatest hits. As presented at Phoenix Theatre, this is a full-on, theatrical interpretation where song and dance combine in a way to unlock the hidden meanings of the lyrics and brings them to the surface in ways you never expected. Think of this way; it’s one thing to hear the songs, as many of us have done for most of our lives, but it’s another to watch them portrayed in a way that breathes new life into them, displaying wit, rowdiness, and most important, affection. Imagine a seeing a chest that for years you have known contains treasure, then someone finally opens it and puts the contents on full, glittering display.
Even before the show begins, you can’t help but be impressed with Yoon Bae’s striking scenic design supported by Mike Eddy’s atmospheric lighting. Combined, they create a stylized cross between a bar and a nightclub, decorated with back-lit shelves of liquor bottles, all on display on a wide stage flanked by round tables and chairs that will soon be occupied by audience members invited up. Seemingly floating across the top of the set is an abstract design of black and white piano keys, reminiscent of the musical fantasy, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. In the middle hangs a giant bass drum that doubles as a screen upon which images complimenting the moment will be projected throughout.
Once you’ve savored the opportunity of taking in the design of the set, the tuxedoed musicians have taken their positions behind the bar and the tables and chairs are finally occupied, the show begins, and it jumps into action the moment the five colorful and hugely talented performers enter and take the stage. In spite of the changes of mood and musical tempo delivered throughout the next two hours, under Robert Kolby Harper’s energetic choreography and direction, there’s a never a moment of weakness or a momentary lapse of interest; it all works.
The five performers – two male, three female – all have their moment of individual attention allowing us to see exactly what they can do with solos that nicely showcase their talents, but it’s when they’re together that the revue truly becomes something quite special. There are songs that standout more than others, but to list them is merely a way of reflecting personal taste. In truth, they’re all good, so what eventually becomes prominent boils down to what you already know and enjoy. For me it was the humor and style of Walter Belcher’s Your Feet’s Too Big, The Viper’s Drag where Andre Jordan sings of enjoying a reefer five foot long, Katherine Todd’s Squeeze Me, Fredena J. Williams’ Cash for Your Trash, Brittney Mack – who can safely take the title Little Miss Dynamite away from Brenda Lee – and her rendition of Yacht Club Swing, and the moment of unexpected poignancy when the whole cast seat themselves and perform the haunting Black and Blue with lyrics that state: I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case/’Cause I can’t hide what is on my face.
When Fats Waller wrote the title song, Ain’t Misbehavin’, he said he was alone in alimony jail, serving time. When you know this, the lyrics take on a whole new meaning. Even though this is not something we learn in the show, it’s an example of the hidden depth that you may never have realized was ever in Waller’s music. In its way, this musical revue does the same; it unlocks the hidden meaning behind many of the numbers you’ve enjoyed for years, but until now have never really known. Supported by an outstanding band under Alan Ruch’s lively musical direction, it’s like hearing the whole catalog for the first time.
For more information regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the Phoenix Theatre website.