There's a party onstage at the Temple of Music and Art. It's hosted by the Arizona Theatre Company, and we're all invited. It even has a name: Ain't Misbehavin'. And, oh baby, yeah, it is a Tony Award-winning tribute to the music and mischief of Thomas "Fats" Waller.
Thanks to the talented cast of five and the rockin' rhythm of the first-rate orchestra, we are exuberantly gathered into the bosom, heart and soul of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s.
Waller, who packed his brief 39 years with volumes of musical accomplishment, started on the piano as a 6-year-old. As a teenager, he played the organ, both at the church where his father was the preacher, and at the movies, where he accompanied silent films.
Over a couple of decades, he wrote dozens of songs with numerous lyricists. He was known as much for his fun-loving, rambunctious presence onstage as for his mastery of "stride" piano. The show, conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz, illustrates this.
The jam-packed, two-act revue, which won the Tony for Best Musical in 1978, features 30 songs, many of which Waller composed, sometimes with the help of others. They include familiar Waller tunes like "Honeysuckle Rose," "Jitterbug Waltz" and "Lookin' Good but Feelin' Bad," and songs by other composers and lyricists that complement Waller's own.
No matter their origin, the songs are all enthusiastically performed by the cast: Rebecca Covington, Angela Grovey, Christopher L. Morgan, Ken Robinson and Aurelia Williams. Kent Gash directs, and the musical direction is expertly handled by Darryl G. Ivey, who also plays piano and conducts the six-piece orchestra.
Emphatic praise goes to the design team of Emily Beck (set), Austin K. Sanderson (costumes), William H. Grant III (lighting) and Brian Jerome Peterson (sound). Their designs create a beautiful and workable environment for the performers, and they add mightily to the production's overall entertainment bang.
The two acts are deliberately different, a strategy that dictates the menu of songs. The first act is designed to get the joint jumpin', and the company works tirelessly to get it done.
On a deceptively simple set, featuring a gilded, arched proscenium with a scalloped maroon drape, the players take to the stage, the men struttin' and stylin', and the women aglow in brilliantly colored dresses. Boisterous and bouncy, they flit and flirt, charming us right out of our seats, daring us to be unaffected by their delivery of Waller's goods.
A revue format comes with challenges. Do you try to flesh out Waller's story—and the story of his era—with narration? Or do you let the music tell the tale? The approach here is a hybrid; fortunately, history lessons are kept to a minimum, and well-executed song-and-dance wins the day.
Since many of the songs involve a lot of lovin' and leavin,' it's a challenge to make the staging of each musical number fresh. Frankly, there's a lot of jealous pouting and sheepish innocence in Byron Easley's musical staging. But the performers overcome this sameness with their commitment to the songs and their ability to sell them.
The second act begins with a sizzling effort by the orchestra. The musicians get a chance to show off all by themselves, and a joyous show, it is. Without the driving force of this fine ensemble, the show would be much less successful.
The focus, so wide and wild in the first act, draws tighter and, in some ways, quieter in the second. Most of the performers get a solo turn, and these numbers intensify the intimacy between artist and audience in ways both serious and humorous. Morgan's languid, liquid rendering of "The Viper's Drag"/"The Reefer Song" will not easily be forgotten, especially by the ladies in the front row who were the beneficiaries of an up-close-and-personal interaction with his buff bare chest during the show I attended.
But nothing can compare with the awesome beauty and disturbing intensity of the company's offering of "Black and Blue." The song, with lyrics by Andy Razaf, is a powerful indictment of racism. As presented by these fine performers, it penetrates the heart. Simply stunning.
But don't think for a minute that this brings the party down. In a concluding medley that rocks the house, the company sends us merrily on our way.