More than seventy years after he left this earth, Thomas "Fats" Waller's joie de vivre and infectious humor continue to be a strong calling card. Yet Waller's talent as a brilliant entertainer sometimes overshadowed his unparalleled skill at the keyboard, both as a composer and a performer.
Sitting nightly at a piano, Waller pounded out his ditties, pouring himself a shot or two of gin and cracking wise with the crowd. One of the most prolific musicians during the golden era of jazz and an originator of swing music, the 6' 2", 285 pound Waller had a hearty appetite in every sense of the word.
One of his most popular recordings was “Ain’t Misbehavin,” heard first on Broadway in 1930. Nearly fifty years later Richard Maltby, Jr. co-created the original stage version-- a high-spirited musical revue and tribute to the black musicians of that era. In 1978 Ain't Misbehavin' took home four Tony Awards and ran for 1,604 performances on Broadway. It also launched the jukebox musical genre that is still going strong on Broadway today.
Bold, bright and told with the cheeky humor for which Fats was known, Ain't Misbehavin' brought the house down last Friday night at the Delaware Theatre Company. The cheering began with the show's first beat of the title song and never really stopped. The production brilliantly captures the raise-the-roof spirit of a Harlem Renaissance "rent party" thanks to a gifted cast of five veteran Broadway actors and actresses who succinctly convey the composer’s many moods-- from the irreverent “Fat and Greasy” to the mournful “Black and Blue.”
Want more? The man at the helm in the DTC production is the legendary Maltby.
"Last year I had dinner in New York with a friend and then we went to the theater," recalled Bud Martin, DTC's artistic and executive director. "I turned around and there's Richard and his daughter in the row behind me. Richard is a friend but had never been to our theater. So I asked, 'how about doing the show in Wilmington?' He thought a moment and said, 'Sure I'd be happy to do that.' One of those serendipitous moments. Richard is a special guy, extremely talented, but like the guy next door."
One of America's most respected theater directors, Maltby is also an accomplished producer, lyricist and screenwriter. He has collaborated with composer David Shire for more than a half century on a string of Tony-nominated original musicals. Maltby directed the 2008 Broadway production of "The Story Of My Life"-- a musical that DTC’s audiences saw in December 2013 with Broadway actor Rob McClure and Philadelphia native Ben Dibble.
“I was honored to direct a national tour of Richard’s 'Starting Here, Starting Now' in 1979 – which started at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia,” said Martin. “We reunited in 2008 when I co-produced 'The Story Of My Life' on Broadway.”
Sometimes sassy, sometimes sultry, with moments of devastating beauty, Ain't Misbehavin' is one of the most popular, well-crafted revues of all time. A versatile cast struts, strums and sings the songs Waller made famous in a career that ranged from uptown clubs to downtown Tin Pan Alley to Hollywood and concert stages across the world.
Waller was an imposing figure with an especially muscular playing style. A massive man, Waller’s music runs the complete range of jazz, swing, blues and pop music of his time. He composed ballads, ditties and rousing up-tempo tunes. He had a finger on the pulse of the culture of Harlem. Waller died in 1943 from pneumonia at age 30 on an eastbound train after performing in Hollywood.
"For a show that has no script, it really has a strong story," Martin explains. "It was the birth of jazz as a free-form genre of music. If Waller had lived longer I'm sure he would be a major figure. After he died people began to pay attention to what he wrote. He was also the founder of the stride piano techniques and fingerings."
Around 1920, the popularity of ragtime piano began to wane as blues music became the new fad. In response to this, Waller and several other Harlem pianists began to experiment with a blending of styles. The result was stride piano. Stride comes from the action of the left hand when playing the piano in this style: the left hand plays a constant, striding beat against a melodious right hand. The pianist's left hand had to literally "stride" greater distances up and down the keyboard — often at great speed.
Maltby's current revue savors each and every note-- from succulent "Honeysuckle Rose" to melancholy "Black and Blue," from sophisticated struts of “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” to low comedy "Your Feet's Too Big" to the raucous "The Joint is Jumpin'" to classic ballads of lost love like “Mean to Me.”
Maltby handpicked the DTC cast that bicker and coo with one another, and even the audience. A pair of them have performed at the theater in the past. Doug Eskew-- who has performed in Ain't Misbehavin' both regionally and on the national tours-- was last seen in DTC’s production of "Crowns" in 2012. Debra Walton was last seen by DTC audiences in the then Off-Broadway bound production of 'Cookin' At The Cookery." She is also celebrated for performances on Broadway in "The Pajama Game" and the national tour of "South Pacific." The DTC cast also includes Eugene Fleming, Cynthia Thomas and Kecia Lewis.
The show plays out on designer Kacie Hultgren's set, which evokes a cabaret/nightclub of 1920s Harlem. Julia Lema’s exuberant choreography incorporates a wide range of styles from a persnickety promenade (“Lounging at the Waldorf”) to a free-wheeling jitterbug.
Act Two opens with “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” and moves through the bluesy part of Waller's music highlighted with Lewis' emotional “Mean to Me.” Eskew delivers brilliantly on a rousing “Your Feet’s Too Big” and teams up with Fleming on the sassy “Fat and Greasy,” while “Black and Blue” cover the angst of life.
The revue revolves around music director William Foster McDaniel performing superbly on a upright piano in a corner of the stage, often accompanied by a tight and energizing five member jazz band.
The finale features a medley of tunes Waller performed, and some he didn't write but made into hit recordings, including the well known standards “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” ‘Two Sleepy People,” "I've Got My Fingers Crossed, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and "It’s A Sin to Tell A Lie." The cast closes out the evening with a reprise of "Honeysuckle Rose."
It's s a rollicking, toe-tapping experience you don't want to miss. But when you leave the theatre, Ain't Misbehavin' will also have you wondering how so many great tunes could have been penned, or made famous, by one performer.
Ain't Misbehavin' will run at the Delaware Theatre Company through April 27. Single tickets range from $40 to $50. Call the Delaware Theatre Company Box Office at (302) 594-1100, or visit www.delawaretheatre.org