by Adam Cohen
Thomas “Fats” Waller played piano and sang making life a party. A large man with an out-sized personality, he was known as much for making people laugh as for his extraordinary skill at a jumping style of piano playing known as stride.
NJPAC’s Victoria Hall has been transformed into a smoking hot 1920s jazz night club with Crossroad Theater’s Ain’t Misbehavin,’ a musical revue, named after the song of the same name by Waller. The blues, soul, and honky tonk numbers are in fine hands of the cast, band, and Andre De Shields smoltering, clever direction and choreography.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’,” won the 1978 best-musical Tony Award as it set toes tapping anew to such songs as “T Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Scenic designed Burke Wilmor throws in some Art Deco embellishments and places an upright piano at the ready. Wilmor’s lighting keeps the atmosphere cozily dim, with splashes of color for zest and brighter beams to electrify the Easter egg hues of Deborah Caney’s fun costumes.
Each of the five performers establishes a distinct compelling personality. Extraordinary individually, the performers approach the divine when clustered in tight harmonies. As conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz, the show wonderfully varies mood and sound as it progresses through group numbers and solos that highlight Waller’s diverse catalog of melodies that are sometimes invigoratingly herky-jerky, other times seductively sinuous.
Musical director David Alan Bunn occupies the Waller seat of honor at the piano, and five instrumentalists occupy a bandstand keep the proceedings fun and rollicking.
Yet for all of its joyousness, Waller’s music is also infused with the reverse. The excessive brightness of his comedy, performed in the era of segregation enforced by Jim Crow laws, can be read as a pressure release or form of gallows humor.
The cast is uniformly fun and expressive singers – Johnmaalya Adelekan, Rheaume Crenshaw, Borris York, David Samuel, and Zurin Villaneuva. They sing beautifully, move elegantly, and craft a wonderously memorable evening.
The revue turns emotional when the cast pauses, stock-still, to sing “Black and Blue,” in which Andy Razaf’s lyric poses the devastating double-entendre, “What did I do to be so black and blue?” Razaf rhymes “forlorn,” “thorn,” “torn” and “born” to tell a still relevant story. The melody, which Waller co-wrote with Harry Brooks, is gorgeous yet throbs a memorably poignant reflection of today’s world.
NJPAC thru February 4.
Photos: William M. Brown