Regional Reviews: Florida - Southern
The Maltz Jupiter Theatre presents Ain't Misbehavin', the Fats Waller musical show. A cast of five members and a seven-piece band share in this high energy tribute to the music of Fats Waller, and the time in which he rose to fame. The setting is a 1930s Harlem nightclub during the golden age of The Cotton Club, and in the words of the talented Mr. Waller: "This Joint Is Jumpin'."
Born in Harlem in 1904, Thomas "Fats" Waller began playing piano at age six. He later learned and played organ at the church at which his father was a lay minister and his mother the church organist. In his teens he delivered bootleg liquor to pay for his music studies. When his mother died, he was able to support himself playing for rent parties and vaudeville acts, accompanying silent movies, and recording rolls for player pianos. His eager appetite resulted in a weight well over 300 pounds, and he became known as Fats Waller.
Fats began recording in 1922. He perfected the stride piano with his recording of "Handful of Keys" in 1929. He then developed his own style, pioneering the use of the pipe organ and Hammond organ in jazz. He wrote dozens of songs, pitching them to assorted companies for small sums of money, then went on to tour in nightclubs and perform on the radio and in films such as Stormy Weather. His fast lifestyle contributed to financial problems for which he spent occasional jail time. His love of food and alcohol contributed to his untimely death at the age of 39. Waller's funeral was attended by over 4,000 mourners, to which the minister in attendance remarked, "Fats always did play to packed houses."
Ain't Misbehavin' is the result of the collaboration of Murray Horwitz, now the director and COO of American Film Institute's Silver Theatre, and Richard Maltby, Jr., lyricist for such musicals as Miss Saigon and Closer Than Ever. Maltby also contributed lyrics to Waller's "Handful of Keys" for Ain't Misbehavin'. The idea for the show was born in 1972 from the two young men's love of Waller's music. In 1978, Ain't Misbehavin' was originally produced Off-Broadway by the Manhattan Theatre Club. Later that year it moved to Broadway's Longacre Theatre where it ran for 1604 performances and launched the career of the late Nell Carter. A 1988 revival ran for another 26 weeks.
The title of the show is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the characters in the nightclub who are very much seeking to misbehave as much as they may protest it in song. The show has only a smattering of banter and clever asides, as the characters and script are defined by the content of the songs combined with their physical delivery. The first act has more group numbers and duets; in the second act we see the performers shine as soloists.
This production features lovely costuming and set design. Though the choreography is pleasing, some numbers feature less active staging than expected. A propelled onstage upright piano presents unnecessary problems. That it is not tuned and microphoned clearly enough is shiningly ironic in the number "Handful Of Keys." The motorized movement of the piano along with the soloist is awkward in "Squeeze Me," as the piano's sideways downstage center resting position completely blocks the featured singer from the right side of the audience for 80% of the song.
Angela Karol Grovey seems to have the best handle on the right feel for this show. She is sassy and sexy in numbers such as "Cash For Your Trash", and then tender in a wonderful version of "I've Got A Feeling." Rodney Hicks has an enjoyable presence and energy in the show, particularly in "The Viper's Drag". However, a sweaty and shirtless Mr Hicks indulged in a moment with a female audience member fraught with sexual tension that became a tiny bit uncomfortably in its appropriateness. Though the three women work well off of one another, the two men seem to have little chemistry together.
The thrill of Ain't Misbehavin' should be that it revels in the near gritty texture of the music and dance style of this era. While the ensemble of this cast sings the entire show with great clarity and blend, some phrases are sung and spoken so properly that they lack the ethnic feel with which they were written. As is mentioned in the song "Lounging at the Waldorf," during this musical time period there was music played uptown written by men like Fats, and music played downtown. Director Kent Gash seems to have diluted rather than embraced some of the flavor of this production. Despite that, this production filled with character songs, honky tonk numbers, torch songs and dance numbers, is an audience pleaser.
Ain't Misbehavin' runs November 28 through December 10th at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre. The theatre is located at 1001 Indiantown Rd and A1A in Jupiter, FL. Show times are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 PM, Saturday 8 PM, and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinee at 2 PM. Tickets can be purchased at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre Box Office, on line at www.jupitertheatre.org, or by phone at 561/575-3332 or 800/445-1666. The Maltz Jupiter Theatre is a 550-seat, nonprofit community-based Equity regional theatre belonging to the League of Resident Theatres.
Angela Karol Grovey*
Crew * Designates member of Actor's Equity Association, the Union of
Professional Actors and Stage managers in the United States.
* Designates member of Actor's Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage managers in the United States.