By James V. Ruocco
The music of legendary jazz pianist Fats Waller is effectively and lovingly recreated in Westchester Broadway Theatre's sizzling, fanciful revival of "Ain't Misbehavin,' " the place where jive meets jazz, ragtime and swing pulsate and rhythm and blues get you all hot, bothered and lathered up.
This "Ain't Misbehavin' " not only delivers, but celebrates a bygone ere where black jazz rocked Tin Pan Alley and Harlem's 125th St., bootleg gin was the drink of choice, liberated spirits burst from the rafters and songs about the blues and life itself, sizzled, jammed and smoldered.
It's a party of sorts where every performer gets his or her big moment to fly solo and jam with the band. Or simply glide into ensemble form and be carried aloft by the vocal arrangements and musical syncopation of the maestro himself....Mr. Fats Waller.
At Westchester Broadway Theatre, "Ain't Misbehavin' " is being staged by Richard Maltby, Jr., who conceived and directed the original 1978 Tony Award-winning Broadway production. This musical recreation pays homage to that remarkable work in terms of whimsy, nostalgia, spirit, lyric conviction and heart-racing showmanship. It also gets things right by all accounts in terms of staging, using the same sort of silvery pulse and pungency that made the original musical revue such a dazzling, harmonious treat.
Still, Maltby is no copycat. Nor is he one to rest on his own laurels.
This "Ain't Misbehavin' " has a mind of its own and Maltby delivers the goods in colorful, rip-roaring passion. It's still a musical where the instrumental voices of a Harlem supper club are the show's high point and calling card. But some of the staging is much more intimate and cozy to reflect that one-on-one seriousness and playfulness that was the Harlem Renaissance. This production is also a tad more scripted.
Whereas the 1978 edition included lots of hilariously orchestrated improvisation from performance to performance, here, there's only a smattering of shtick that's dangled in front of the audience whenever the mood strikes Maltby or his cast. Simply stated, you can't replicate the brilliant improvisational purity that existed between the 1978 audience and the original Broadway cast, namely Nell Carter, Ken Page, Andre DeShields, Charlayne Woodard and Armelia McQueen. Quite frankly, no one could. And Maltby, in this go-round, knows exactly that.
Is it missed? Yes.
Does it lessen the impact? Absolutely not.
This production still packs the same emotional wallop as the original did when it first played Broadway. It's just a little bit different. And that's o.k.
The musical songbook for "Ain't Misbehavin' " features more than 30 musical numbers, most of them written by the extraordinary Fats Waller, Andy Razaf, Harry Brooks and other gifted lyricists of the time. They include "Honeysuckle Rose," "Squeeze Me," "Cash For Your Trash," "The Joint Is Jumpin.' " "Fat and Greasy," "Black and Blue," "Ain't Misbehavin,' " "Spreadin' Rhythm Around," "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling," "Lookin' Good But Feelin' Bad," "How Ya Baby," "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," "Mean to Me," "Ladies Who Sing with the Band" and
"Find Out What They Like."
Peppered with wit, street savvy, high comedy, spunk, jive, swing, rippling black culture and marvelous period authenticity, the music itself snaps, crackles and pops as it carries and celebrates the emotional weight of the 1920's and the 1930's. Throughout "Ain't Misbehavin,' " the invention, skill and extraordinary technique that was Fats Waller rings loud and clear as does his penchant for stride piano, beat-by-beat alternations, plucky ranges, complex pitch chords, melody clicks, complex syncopations and cascading musical notes.
Given the power, artistry and musical vocabulary of Fats Waller and its elicitation of strong, particularly fancied, lively song twists and emotions, musical director William Foster McDaniel is the perfect fit for "Ain't Misbehavin.' " He gets Fats Waller. He understands Fats Waller. He appreciates Fats Waller. He loves Fats Waller. He gets excited by Fats Waller.
McDaniel is a first-class, talented musician who knows exactly how to make every single song associated with "Ain't Misbehavin' " resonate and fascinate with that Harlem supper club magic, dash, pulse and drive intended by Waller and his merry band of lyricists and composers. First and foremost, Waller's music is the voice and centerpiece of this rousing musical entertainment. It is also imbued with the acerbic wit, humanity and power of the composer and his earthy embroidery of musical expressions, movements and invocations.
At Westchester Broadway Theatre, McDaniel, a musical dynamo in full force on the piano, surrounds himself with the tremendously talented orchestral team of Jay Mack (drums), Brian Uhl (trumpet), Steve Bleifuss (trombone), David Dunaway (bass) and Robert Carten (reeds). As "Ain't Misbehavin,' " unfolds, all six musicians play the award-winning musical score with just the right amount of effortless enthusiasm, passion, emotion and humor the production calls for. Nothing is rushed or hurried. Instead, things sizzle, simmer and pop as the entire five-member cast raise their voice in song never once missing a single beat, intention, harmony or rhythm associated with the the show's snappy musical songbook. It's all very, very beautiful.
"Ain't Misbehavin' " stars Martine Allard, Amy Jo Phillips, Tony Perry, Anita Welch and Ron Lucas.
True to form, the show remains an hypnotic ensemble piece where each performer embraces the music of Fats Waller, brings it magically to life, touches the heart and soul of its creator and illuminates the vocal brilliance of the musical score with ineffable beauty, compassion, warmth, humor and dignity.
There are star turns, yes. There are showstoppers, yes. There are crazy bits and shenanigans that get you roaring and roaring. There's also plenty of passionate, moody vocal turns that bring a tear to two to your eyes. But through it all, the cast is in full and fine voice that smartly reflects the intentions of the composers, the songs themselves and their conjuring questions and answers. What's wonderful is the depth and versatility of each vocalist, their amazing range and control, their individual harmonizing and continuity and how they wrap their voice around a lyric they want you to understand.
In conclusion, "Ain't Misbehavin' '' is an energetic and savvy music celebration that lovingly pays homage to the Harlem Renaissance. It jumps. It pops. It sparkles. It gets the pulses racing. Richard Maltby Jr's direction is sweet and sassy. Every one of the songs shows Fats Waller at his very best. And the cast - all five of them - communicate the show's music, kick, humor and nostalgia with that welcoming ensemble feel that put "Ain't Misbehavin' " on the musical map when it first played Broadway back in 1978. Then and now, the bygone era of Harlem jazz clubs, speakeasies, whiskey, bourbon and bathtub gin, is alive and well. And oh yes, "jumpin.' ".
This being a first-class dinner theatre, there's the food, of course.
The menu itself is very nice, chock full of delicious, savory, well-prepared entrees, starters, desserts and drinks. The beef bourguignon, slow cooked in wine and served over a creamy bed of mashed potatoes, was topped with carrots, mushrooms and pearl onions. The hearty red wine, the savory sauce and the melt-in-your mouth beef pieces, made all the difference in the finished, comforting dish, as did the tender, juicy veggies. It's a five star dish that is so amazing, you'd no doubt want to do your best Oliver Twist imitation and ask for "More."
The actual food service is handled by a group of personable, confident staff members who are very good at their job and who trust everyone around them who are equally skilled. From kitchen staff to busboys and servers, the Westchester Broadway Theatre cuisine department is run by experts who know their food menu, know their audience and trust their culinary instincts to create a warm, inviting dining experience that feels like an ocean liner cruise from yesteryear in the very best way.
When it comes to planning, they get it right every time. You also get a very friendly waiter who can anticipate your needs as the menu changes from show to show.
This review is dedicated to the memory of Nell Carter, the Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress and singer best remembered for her showstopper musical turn in the original 1978 Broadway production of "Ain't Misbehavin.' " and the NBC comedy "Gimme a Break."
"Ain't Misbehavin' " is being staged at Westchester Broadway Theatre (1 Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, NY), now through February 24.
For tickets or more information, call (914) 592-2222.