Ain't Misbehavin' | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Ain't Misbehavin' 

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Apple Tree Theatre Company

If you dislike this musical you probably also hate sunsets, babies, spring, and Christmas. Ain't Misbehavin' is Richard Maltby Jr.'s easy-loving tribute to Thomas "Fats" Waller, the cherubic--at 285 pounds--songwriter and performer. Fats lavished his infectious smile, superb stride-piano technique, and cute quips (like his signature line, "One never knows, do one?") on such compositions as "Handful of Keys," "Honeysuckle Rose," and "The Joint Is Jumpin'."

Like his jazz contemporaries, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Louis Armstrong, and Cab Calloway, Waller often played the clown, his patter a smooth, disarming way to ingratiate himself with possibly unfriendly white audiences. Happily, Maltby's 1978 Tony winner--and Apple Tree Theatre's tenth-anniversary season opener--replays Waller at his uninhibited best, romping through toe-tapping tunes with infectious delight, turning everything into a party.

Backed up by a hot combo (music director Rufus Hill on piano, Rodney Harper on drums, and Gerald Lindsey on bass), the terrific five-member ensemble launch a rich retrospective of Waller favorites from 1922 to 1943. This seemingly unstoppable flow of felicitous tunes ranges from the almost surreal sophistication of the 1942 "Jitterbug Waltz" to the crowd-pleasing, hard-clapping vulgarity of the 1939 "Fat and Greasy."

Director Don Mayo has made the best choices for a surefire show: he found the right cast, and he trusts the material to sell itself. (It also helps to keep the miking to a minimum.) The redoubtable E. Faye Butler reinvents the torch song with her heartfelt, hushed "Mean to Me" and with her infatuation in "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling." Bountiful Felicia Fields (in the role Nell Carter originated) coaxes the sensuality out of "Squeeze Me" and, reinforced by Butler, tears into the harmonious dueling duet, "Find Out What They Like." Comedienne Cheridah Best sweetens the coquetry in "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" and later launches into a Betty Boop takeoff in the campy "Yacht Club Swing."

With his CinemaScope smile and leer, Stanley White earns the right to be Waller's stand-in, especially in such signature numbers as the hilarious "Your Feet's Too Big" and the salacious-to-indecent "Honeysuckle Rose" (where he milks the "suck" for all it's worth). Gordon McClure has been given the gigolo numbers, like the slick "How Ya Baby"; his most extreme feat is the creepily decadent "The Viper's Drag," where he transforms himself into a hepcat flying high on pot--literally, as he swings across the stage seemingly beyond pain and pleasure.

The solos are strong, but the treasure work comes in the duets and ensemble numbers, like the medley of World War II songs about recycling trash and the joy of donning nylon stockings once more; the first-act finale, "The Joint Is Jumpin'," where the cast work the house like true vaudevillians; and the immensely satisfying final medley of Waller's recorded hits. Lovingly reprised, other standards are stamped by their era: "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie," and the delicious duet "Two Sleepy People."

Wielding canes and charisma, White and McClure strut their stuff in the bebop ballad "The Ladies Who Sing With the Band." Fields and McClure bring down the house in their talking-blues confrontation in "That Ain't Right." For "Off-Time" the women do a tap dance every bit as elegant as their takeoff on cafe society in "Lounging at the Waldorf." And wearing immense fur coats and flaunting attitude in all directions in "Spreadin' Rhythm Around," the company celebrate the Cotton Club's high life--vogueing has nothing on this.

The most chilling moment comes during the eerily harmonious 1929 "Black and Blue," a sort of protest blues; caught in a cold light, the ensemble create a frozen tableau as they choke out the lyrics' litany of suffering and undercut it with the dated but curiously revealing qualification, "I'm white inside."

Frozen in time, this statement reveals a moment of cultural insecurity--but what comes through today is the despair, in a haunting plea that overrides the politically incorrect lyrics.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studio.


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