by David A. Rosenberg
At Long Wharf, the same team that gave Broadway its first “Ain’t Misbehavin’” returns to shower audiences with the music of Thomas (“Fats”) Waller. And what a catalogue of tunes the great man wrote on his stride piano. (His heydays were the 30s and 40s.) From the title number to “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint in Jumpin’,” “Mean to Me,” “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” and “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling,” the melodies, as played by the hot band under musical director Phillip Hall, spark reminders of a long-ago age when jazz was king.
This is a jukebox show with a difference. Little attempt is made to offer up facts about Waller’s life, except for a few lines about the chasm between downtown 52nd Street and uptown 125th Street. Waller’s biography, his spirit and the atmosphere of the world he inhabited come through in the music.
Thus, where downtown is “Lounging at the Waldorf,” uptown it’s the Cotton Club and “’Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” Waller’s first recorded song. The show is a snapshot of the times, its jivin’ and struttin’, its joys and its poignancy, the latter most tellingly in the yeaning, beautifully sung “Black and Blue,” brilliantly arranged by William Elliott.
The cast is accomplished, though there are no outsized personalities like Nell Carter or Ken Page here from the original production. Kecia Lewis-Evans and Doug Eskew are fair imitations of those stars, she with “Mean to Me” and he with “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Debra Walton sells “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” while Cynthia Thomas has fun with “Squeeze Me” and Eugene Barry-Hill stops the show by slithering through “The Viper’s Drag.”