note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Growing up, I loved listening to my parents’ stories about speakeasies, jazz clubs, Prohibition, home stills, dancing the Charleston, jumping and jiving to jazz, singing and crying the blues.
Those were the days.....
The Lyric Stage Company of Greater Boston recreates a night at the Savoy or Harlem’s Cotton Club, heralding the music of composer-pianist-organist-entertainer extraordinaire Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller, who died too soon in 1943, at age 39, of pneumonia and complications of his large girth (300 pounds) and alcohol excess.
Boston favorite star Calvin Braxton admirably revives the incomparable Waller in this award-winning tribute to Waller’s music, “Ain’t Misbehavin,‘ “ named after Waller’s classic hit song. The show was conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz, and enjoyed success in 1978 and a revival in 1988.
Braxton’s vocal range, fantastic dancing, and expressive acting are terrific. As Waller, he’s a cosmic sun around which the rest of the cast revolves. Unfortunately, Music Director Catherine Stornetta on keyboard and her six musicians, perched centrally above the stage, are too lowkey in opening numbers, and this talented cast of five at times hits some sour notes together.
They redeem themselves with a lively rendition of Billie Holiday’s big hit, “T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness if I Do,” a swinging, swaying, jump-and-jiving “Jitterbug Waltz,” and mood-setting medley.
Besides singing the blues, this two-act, two-hour musical revue is peppered with humor, shtick, and lively numbers, which this cast performs admirably.
After its tepid beginning, the show regenerates, revives, especially in the second act, infused with the spirits of Waller and his cohorts. Director-choreographer Josie Bray has recaptured Waller’s heyday with her non-stereotypical, genre-grabbing style and steps.
Although David Towlun’s multi-tiered set, with its handsome, piano keys archway, is designed to be all-encompassing, using the stage and two staircases leading to two upper-corner platforms as dressing rooms on either side of the hidden band, sometimes the cast is too fragmented. Nevertheless, Braxton, Davron S. Monroe, Lovely Hoffman, Robin Long and Lori Tishfield’s performances overall are fine. Hoffman’s voice is sultry, sexy, while Long defies upper registers. Tishfield, a senior at the Boston Conservatory, adds spice and laughter with her vivacity, her voice and personality sparkling additions.
Besides standard tunes, including title song, “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” the group performs jazz standards, “The Joint is Jumpin,’” and breezier tunes, “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Mean to Me,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “Two Sleepy People,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” and more.
Monroe is outstanding in his Act II, drug-swirled, sultry rendition of “The Viper’s Drag/The Reefer Song,” and Braxton cracks up the place with Tishfield, who stomps around in large, clownlike shoes in “Your Feet’s Too Big,” (which, incidentally, the Beatles performed later). Also, Long and Hoffman are sassy, sexy, in their naughty duet, “Find Out What They Like (and Let Them Have It Just That Way)”.
Braxton and Monroe work the crowd with an audience participatory rendition of “Fat and Greasy,” followed by the cast performing Louis Armstrong’s bluesy hit, “Black and Blue,” a jazz standard that tackles black-white racism, which Waller wrote with Harry Brooks and lyricist Andy Razaf.
Undeniably, Waller’s music is familiar, fun and refreshing, and Lyric Theatre lets it shine, shine, shine. However, because Waller was a fascinating headliner who lived in an era punctuated by gangland crime (Al Capone and the Mafia) and a rising, new musical, racial and political era, I wish the revue incorporated biographical anecdotes, like the time Waller was terrified when Capone’s henchmen kidnapped him and forced him to play for three days, celebrating Capone’s birthday.
BOX INFO: Classic Fats Waller two-act musical show, appearing at Lyric Stage Company of Greater Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Boston, now through Dec. 17, Wednesdays, Thursdays, at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3,8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.; matinees Wednesdays, Nov. 30, Dec. 14, at 2 p.m. and post-show talkback Dec. 4, after the 3 p.m. show. Tickets, $25-$60; seniors, $5 discount; student rush, $10; group rates available. Call 617-585-5678 or visit lyricstage.com.