In 1926, Fats Waller, a jazzman who began to show signs of piano talent at the age of six, was kidnapped by four armed men. Afraid he was going to be killed, he was relieved to discover he was the “surprised guest of honor” at a birthday party for the criminal Al Capone. He played his tunes with a gun at his back for three long days, earning $100 a song. That is the kind of story I wish had been included in the otherwise wonderful revue of three dozen Fats Waller stylings included in “Ain’t Misbehavin’ “ conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr and Murray Horwitz currently strutting its stuff until Saturday, April 29 at Westport Country Playhouse. Opening night was made even more special when Richard Maltby, Jr and Andre DeShields were in the audience.
Fats Waller, who described himself as 285 pounds of “jam, jive and everything,” was a master of the stride piano, and is credited with composing over 400 songs. 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’. ”
With a scrollwork Art Deco set reminiscent of the Savoy Ballroom or the Cotton Club, thanks to Raul Abrego, 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: Miya Bass, Paris Bennett, Jay Copeland, Judith Franklin and Will Stone, and they are the Energizer Bunny in splendid form. Each a star in their own right, they bring Fats Waller’s tunes to brilliant light, showcasing 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.
The joint was truly jumpin.’ The cast certainly knows how to “spread rhythm around;” as they are hep cats with attitude and flair, who respond to Terry Bogart’s inspired piano playing and Jeffrey L. Page’s delightful musical direction and choreography. This is a show not to be missed. Oana Botez’s glorious costumes are worth the trip all by themselves, adding new dimensions to Philip Rosenberg’s cool lighting and Leon Rothenberg’s smooth sound.
For tickets ($55 and up), call Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport at 203-227-4177 or online at www.westportplayhouse.org. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m, Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. This show is a co-production with Barrington Stage and Geva Theatre Center.
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. The songs are sweet and sassy or sentimental and the cast is lively and luscious and eager to please.