Regional Reviews: New Jersey
This here spot is more than hot/
Also see Bob's review of Wilderness of Mirrors
The new Paper Mill production of the Fats Waller musical revue Ain't Misbehavin' pointedly does not break any new ground, and this is good news for all of us. Not just a series of songs, this show as conceived and directed by Richard Maltby, Jr., back in 1978 re-recreated a style of performance employed by black singers and musicians in night clubs at least as far back as the 1920s and 1930s. This style was built around jazz music, the blues, novelty songs and tap and eccentric dancing, as well as dressing up in colorful style, letting one's hair down, smiling through the tears and displaying a bravado which said, "I like me just as I am, and, if you respect that, we can have fun together." As we get further and further from that era, it becomes clearer than ever just how ingenious the creators of this show were.
The personality of the larger than life Fats Waller dominates the evening. Whether the songs included are associated with Waller as composer, sometime lyricist, stride pianist and/or singer, the context makes us feel that they are extensions of his on stage persona. The lyrics are by a variety of writers. The name of Andy Razaf appears more than any other and on the most quintessential Waller songs ("Ain't Misbehavin'," "Honeysuckle Rose"). Several outstanding composers and lyricists of the era are represented. Even such songs as closely associated with Waller as "'T Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" and "Fat and Greasy" turn out to have been written by the largely forgotten team of Porter Grainger and Charlie Johnson. Some of Waller's great instrumentals have been well adorned with lyrics by Maltby. The result is that Ain't Misbehavin' treats us to about thirty mostly terrific songs.
The performers address each other with their real life names over the course of the evening. It has always felt to me as if Maltby had achieved a miraculous blending of the performance style of his original cast with the "roles" in which they were cast. I do not know if this is the case or an illusion of theatrical art. At Paper Mill, director-choreographer Ken Roberson has come admirably close to repeating this feat.
Given the upbeat, appropriately raucous tone of much of the evening, I do wish that on a couple of occasions he (and Maltby) had trusted the persuasive power of the lyrical moments. This is particularly so toward the conclusion of "The Jitterbug Waltz" (although the reason for this in terms of the personality traits assumed by the performers is apparent).
Darius de Haas continues to please Paper Mill audiences with his strong presence, warm personality and smooth vocals. His clean-cut, boyish good looks as well as his dance style mitigate against his attempt to convey the sinewy sinister quality with which André De Shields performed "The Viper's Drag" in the original production.
Doug Eskew is a big man with a big and amazingly sweet voice. In his rendition of "Honeysuckle Rose," he joyously pays tribute to the late Nell Carter by inserting one of her trademark vocal stylings. Natasha Yvette Williams is especially secure and powerful in her vocals. Angela Robinson rounds out the ensemble in good fashion.
Musical director-pianist William Foster McDaniel and six additional on stage musicians make an essential contribution to the evening's entertainment. Their entr'acte medley is one of the strongest of the evening's many highlights.
It does take awhile for the evening to get rolling, and the shorter first act is only fitfully engaging. Given the cascading, ever escalating pleasure which the second act provides, the reason for this is difficult to discern. I do think that the evening will be even more delightful when some deficiencies in the sound design are corrected. At the performance seen, the sound system had the band competing with, rather than supporting, the vocals. Some of the highest and most powerful notes were distorted and the lyrics were too often rendered unintelligible by the distorting volume. Much of the humor of the first act finale which satirizes female big band vocalists was lost because of this. The lyrics throughout are full of wit and verve, and when they are easier to discern, the joys at hand will be heightened.
Special attention must be paid to "Black and Blue," a great classic Waller and Harry Brooks song with lyrics by Andy Razaf. Written in the 1920s and sung here in a lovely choral arrangement, it illuminates some of the pain which blacks and black artists felt with heartbreaking poetic simplicity and a humbling lack of bitterness:
I'm white inside,/ But that don't help my case/
With this production, the Paper Mill Playhouse embarks on a transition season. Since reopening 20 years ago (after its original building was destroyed by fire), the theatre has been guided by producer Angelo Del Rossi and artistic director Robert Johanson. During that time, Paper Mill developed the largest subscription base of any theatre in the country and produced work that often was so extraordinary that it raised expectations to a level which no theatre could maintain indefinitely. Following trustee dissatisfaction with some artistic and financial decisions by Johanson, a diminution in state and private funding, and a decline in Paper Mill's extraordinary subscription base, Johanson resigned his position. Thereafter, Del Rossi gave up his position as producer and assumed the title of president emeritus. Mark Hoebee, who was brought on a couple of years back to relieve some of the pressures on an overworked and heavily pressured Johanson, remains as associate director. Roy Miller appears to have been instrumental in arranging co-productions with other regional theatres, also remains as associate producer. Paper Mill has no intention of appointing a new artistic director at this time.
However, it has been made clear that Paper Mill is placing its future in the hands of new CEO and President Michael Gennaro, who arrives after completing seven years as managing director of Chicago's prestigious and "financially thriving" Steppenwolf Theatre. Announcements have stressed the fact that Michael Gennaro is the son of legendary Broadway choreographer Peter Gennaro, and the expectation is that his artistic vision will successfully lead the Paper Mill into the future. As Gennaro only assumed his duties late this past spring, it will not be until next fall that we will see the first Gennaro created season. The task ahead of him is daunting. All of us who care about theatre and the American musical theatre have a real stake in his success.
Right now, you can support Paper Mill and treat yourself to a really entertaining night out. Paper Mill is offering a delightful, feel good musical revue which has become a classic in the 25 years since its original production. Presented with great fealty to its original concept by a strong, spirited cast, this production of Ain't Misbehavin' does justice to the memory of the great Fats Waller. The joint is jumpin', and your feet will be tapping.
Ain't Misbehavin' runs through October 19 at the Paper Mill Playhouse (The State Theatre of New Jersey), Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343. Online: www.papermill.org.
Ain't Misbehavin' the Fats Waller musical show. Conceived and Originally Directed by Richard Maltby, Jr. Originally Choreographed by Arthur Faria. Orchestrations and Arrangements by Luther Henderson. Music Director: William Foster McDaniel. Director and Choreographer: Ken Roberson.
Cast: E. Faye Butler/ Darius de Haas/ Doug Eskew/ Angela Robinson/ Natasha Yvette Williams.