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Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller was "285 pounds of jam, jive, and everything," or so he says himself in the beginning of the musical revue Ain't Misbehavin', currently being produced by Theatre Charlotte.
Waller was one of the jukin'-est pianists of his day. He captivated audiences with his signature stride style (learned from his mentor and fellow piano star James P. Johnson) and big, mischievous smile. Throughout his short life (he lived only to age 39), Waller produced a plethora of performances and an oeuvre of popular compositions. Ain't Misbehavin' features more than 30 of Waller's hits.
The cast of five, two men and three women, performed each song with energy, power, and range. While the women mostly out-performed the men, vocally, all five were able to hold pitch. When several of the songs required difficult five-part harmonies, with few exceptions, the cast blended tones exceedingly well (props to vocal music director Adrian Smith).
The cast was accompanied by a seven-member jazz band, led by Tyrone Jefferson, a trombonist and leader of the Charlotte musical non-profit group A Sign of the Times. The band was made up of four horns and a rhythm section. What a pleasure it was to have such a high caliber group of musicians supporting a community theatre production. The band was swingin', and the actors fed off of its energy and dynamics. The band stayed fairly balanced, except for some imbalances between the two hardly heard saxophones and the two much louder brass.
All five vocalists did well in creating dynamic vocal contrasts. The women (Danielle Burke, Nonye Obichere, and Keston Steele) especially showed versatility in transitioning their voices from full and throaty blues to squeaky flute-like trills.
The general revue, however, stayed relatively constant in style. From the giggly romance of "Honeysuckle Rose" to the comic insults of "Fat and Greasy," the mood stayed mostly upbeat and goofy, with very few dynamic emotional contrasts. While it may be intentional that this musical stays light-hearted and "misbehavin'," set in a smoke and dirt-filled club of the Prohibition Era, when watching it, it's hard to forget all of the other emotions that are missing. Life at times wasn't easy for African Americans, even those with the fame of Waller. There may have been fun and games and drinking and good music, but living was hard.
The frivolity of Ain't Misbehavin' is largely due to the collection of songs of which it is comprised. It is a plotless musical; therefore, by nature, it has no sustained character development or storyline. However, that doesn't mean that there can't be any emotional climax, tension, or release. There are a few ballads in Ain't Misbehavin', such as "Two Sleepy People," which aids in breaking up the hyper-energized mood, but such examples are few and significantly outnumbered. It's hard to show the plight of African Americans while drunkily singing, "Oh your pedal extremities are colossal./To me, you look just like a fossil," which Marvin King did hilariously in "Your Feet's Too Big." But we can't forget that New Orleans Jazz, in all of its upbeat excitement, originated when enslaved people came to the only free place in which they could meet, Congo Square. Artistic choices could have been made to reflect that the true emotional depth of the musical's canon goes below the surface.
Ain't Misbehavin' does attempt to address the more serious aspects of African American life in the '20s, mainly through one song, "Black and Blue," in which all five singers lament, "I'm white inside, but that don't help my case,/'Cause I can't hide what is on my face./I.m so forlorn.... Why was I born?/What did I do to be so black and blue?" This song, with its sorrowful minor melody and striking lyrics, serves as a moment of poignancy. It was sung very well and stuck out from the other 30 mostly upbeat songs, but its message wasn't expanded upon at all. Therefore, the audience was left wondering about it and perhaps not taking it as seriously as the subject matter might suggest they should. Even the slightest hint back to this more sober mood through some sort of character choice in the other songs could have further expressed the struggles stated in "Black and Blue." Maybe there was an opportunity to do so in "The Viper's Drag," a comedic piece performed by the exuberant Tyler Smith, in which his character is high off a joint. Some of these drinking and smoking songs could have hinted at darker themes, rather than strictly staying comical. Providing more depth with a nod towards inner struggle would have given greater contrasting weight to the show and allowed its impact to carry further.
While it could have used some more emotional and political depth, Theatre Charlotte's Ain't Misbehavin' displayed impressive musical talent of the vocalists, musicians, and Fats Waller himself. The cast performed two hours of 31, non-stop, high-energy songs with only a 15-minute intermission and did it well. For those onstage as well as off, the joint certainly was jumpin'.
Ain't Misbehavin' continues through Sunday, Feb. 17. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.
PS Readers may find oodles of Fats Waller originals in YouTube. Drop in anywhere and you will be amazed.