Thomas Wright Waller, better known as “Fats,” was one of the most prolific musicians of the 20th century. Along with other notables such as Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller was at the head of the musical revolution during the Harlem Renaissance, spanning from the 1920s to 1940s.
In 1978, as an homage to Waller’s contributions to music, Murray Horowitz and Richard Maltby Jr. put together a show named for one of Waller’s greatest hits, Ain’t Misbehavin’, which is currently electrifying audiences at Theatre Arlington.
First and foremost, the important thing to take away from this show is the incomparable genius of Fats Waller. His music, specializing in a method of piano playing he helped develop called stride, was groundbreaking and hugely influential, particularly as it applied to his instrument of choice.
The piano was, and is, an instrument in flux between two worlds. Classically sequestered to the upper crust of society and entertainment, Fats, among others, helped to introduce the instrument to the lower classes. And in showing that the ivories could be played in a manner other than that of classical music, Waller helped spur a movement that would lead to swing and later to rock ’n’ roll.
The issues with the show are the same as with any posthumously compiled work. The lack of input by Waller, who died 35 years before the musical debuted, on the construction of the show, and really the lack of any significant African-American contribution, rob the show of a completely accurate account of Waller’s voice or the zeitgeist of the Harlem Renaissance.
Sure, this show is simply a revue, presented cabaret-style by five singers. There is no consistent plot or grand narrative. Horowitz and Maltby aren’t trying to give some critical account of either Waller’s life or the Harlem Renaissance…or are they?
The selection and arrangement of the musical numbers in Ain’t Misbehavin’ indicates at least some forethought as to an overriding message intended by the compilers.
Opening with the eponymous title number could be seen as simply placing arguably the most popular song at the beginning. And though it’s couched as a love song, in this rendition it’s sung to the audience, tacitly assuring them there’ll be no shenanigans on this particular evening. Almost like a “Forget what you might have expected. We’re gonna give you something different.”
And book-ending the opening number is the gut wrenching “Black and Blue,” which opines that no matter what is in the singer’s heart, the only thing that’ll matter to the audience is the color of their face.
Add in subtly subversive themes along the way and what is presented simply as a musical revue celebrating one of America’s greatest modern musicians becomes a microcosm of the whole Harlem Renaissance movement and the fight by African-Americans to assert their culture among white-dominated society.
It’d probably be more powerful stuff if the musical hadn’t been put together by a couple of white guys. As it stands though, it was, and for anyone keen to take art at more than just the entertainment face value, it can be slightly off-putting.
Theatre Arlington’s production leaves little to be critical of. Ensemble members Alicia Burton, Vicki Johnson, Linda Lee, Calvin Roberts and Akron Watson all succeed in bringing the music to life and helping transport the audience to Lenox Avenue in the 1930s.
At Sunday’s matinee, Burton fought through a voice failing her after a long weekend of performances, not allowing it to diminish her performance. She went right after every high note with reckless abandon, displaying her passion for the music in the process.
Vicki Johnson brings some impressive acting range to the table as she plays several characters, clearly distinguishing between each one. And Linda Lee uses her attitude and a seductive vocal quality to draw the audience into her clutches.
However, the true treat of the show is in the performances delivered by Roberts and Watson. Roberts controls the stage as if he’d been born on it. His performance is so effortless and he disappears so fully into his characters that one is left to wonder if he actually lived during Waller’s time. And Watson is all personality wrapped in a dynamic yet velvety smooth voice. Both have powerful presence and that unique ability to really draw an audience into a performance.
Director Todd Hart’s staging is often exceedingly simple, but one could see how an emphasis on the music takes precedence over intricate choreography. Likewise, set designer Jack Hardaway goes for a straightforward revue setting, placing the band in the back in front of a stylized backdrop and the front of the stage largely empty save for two sets of table and chairs on either side. It’s all arranged to evince a revue presentation. Nothing more. Nothing less.
And at the surface, that’s exactly what he audience gets. A cleanly produced and impeccably performed musical revue.
But for those cognizant of the history, pay attention to the songs. Listen for more than just catchy tunes. Aside from being a supremely talented musician, Waller’s also had talent for intelligent subversion. The kind of subversion that helped the Harlem musicians make their away in New York’s famous music publisher row, Tin Pan Alley.
Horowitz and Maltby might have actually been on to something. Because during the Harlem Renaissance, there was a conscious effort to move away from the kinds of performances African-Americans had become known for by white audiences. Primary among those was the minstrel show.
So, it’s either cunningly genius or terribly misguided that these two white guys in the ’70s put together perhaps the greatest subversive minstrel show ever written.
For while the largely white audience is simply being entertained by good music, the performers on stage, acting as the voices for Waller and a generation of pioneering African-American musicians, are actually telling a story about rising above oppression and segregation. Taken in that light, the show can actually be quite powerful.
But one can only imagine if that’s what Horowitz and Matlby intended.
With little hope for an answer to that particularly deep question, the best advice is to see the show. See it for the stellar performances. And see it for Fats Waller’s innovative and beguilingly intelligent music. But mostly, see it to have a good time.
Because above everything else, that’s likely what Waller would have wanted.