A frequently-revived classic of the modern musical stage, as the world knows, Ain’t Misbehavin’ (now in revival at Baltimore’s Spotlighters Theatre) is a revue of songs by Thomas “Fats” Waller (1904-1943), composer, pianist, and singer, one of the geniuses of the Harlem Renaissance period. The revue “reviews” no fewer than 31 of his gems, mostly comic, a few deeply touching. The show has roots as a 1978 cabaret (designed to transport the audience back to the uptown and downtown venues that Waller haunted), which then got moved behind a proscenium when it went to Broadway. That hybrid heritage gives the show some flexibility to move either way; this production, played (like all Spotlighters productions), in the round, of necessity emphasizes the cabaret feel, though it does not, like a recent production I saw, intermingle audience and performers.
And it must be said that with an audience on all four sides, the acoustics of the space pose a challenge the production does not totally meet. Some of the songs, especially in the first act, are indistinct, at least to middle-aged ears, because the combination of a singer pointing away from you and a pit band playing loudly at your ear is not ideal for discerning lyrics. I have thought for some time that when the Spotlighters do musical theater, they should mike the performers and tell the band to play pianissimo.
That said, this is a fine youthful cast, showcasing a number of talents from Morgan State University. Tylar Montgomery, puictured above, sometimes channeling Nell Carter, gives us pleasing reminders of Carter’s plangent voice. The high point of this production is Montgomery warbling MEAN TO ME. Phillip Burgess, while not boasting the bang-on vocal impersonation of Fats that Ken Page did on Broadway, does a fine and boisterous non-Fats rendition of songs like HONEYSUCKLE ROSE and YOUR FEET’S TOO BIG. Ann Bragg, Christopher Jones, and Dana McCants all shine in their individual moments (Jones takes VIPER’S DRAG downtown), and the company is gorgeous in its big ensemble number, BLACK AND BLUE.
Almost everyone gets to repeat Waller’s signature line: “One never knows, do one?” Properly delivered, that gives you the essence of Waller, jumping bathetically from pseudo-British affectation to irregular-verb-sparse Ebonics in the space of five words. Somehow every rendition of the line in this performance takes you by pleasing surprise.
There’s a cultural statement in that line, obviously, a statement underlined by some of the songs in the show, most notably BLACK AND BLUE: “I'm white inside,/ But that don't help my case. / 'Cause I can't hide / What is on my face.” Waller celebrated blackness, to be sure, but simultaneously partly internalized white pretensions. In an era when he had to enter some of the places he played by a side door, it would have been inhuman to resist completely the allure of white privilege. It’s all on view in his song LOUNGIN’ AT THE WALDORF, which contrasts the kind of freedom and looseness he could enjoy performing in Harlem with the stiffer, whiter milieu of the Waldorf Astoria, for which he had a certain ambivalence. As the lyric critically puts it: “They like jazz, but in small doses.” Nonetheless: “Ain’t it swell doin’ swell with the swells in the swellest hotel of them all?” You don’t need to be a perfect Waller impersonator to get that ambivalence across. One of the strengths of the show (assembled by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr.) is that it doesn’t whitewash (if I may use that word here) this part of Waller’s legacy.
Or any other part of Waller’s legacy. It’s all here: the flirtatiousness (HONEYSUCKLE ROSE), the exuberance (THE JOINT IS JUMPIN’), the rub-your-nose-in-it celebration of debauchery (‘T AIN’T NOBODY’S BUSINESS IF I DO), the celebration of its opposite, domesticity (TWO SLEEPY PEOPLE, KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW), the romantic side (SQUEEZE ME, I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE), and the downright comic abusiveness – with again the racial subtext (FAT AND GREASY, YOUR FEET’S TOO BIG). And even if you don’t know Waller or this show, you know these great songs. No wonder this revue was a hit; no wonder it keeps being revived.
If you haven’t seen it in a while, this revival is guaranteed to put a grin on your face.
Ain’t Misbehavin’, Music by Thomas”Fats” Waller, by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., directed by Shirley Basfield Dunlap, at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St., Baltimore, MD 21202, through February 12. $20. email@example.com, 410-752-1225.