“Ain't Misbehavin'”
2005 Season


Waller revue 'Ain't' bad at all


June 22, 2005

It's funny what a nickname can do for a musical career. Edward K. Ellington started calling himself Duke, and today his music is interpreted by jazz cats and symphony conductors alike. Thomas W. Waller's friends started calling him Fats, and his music still resides in the saloons where it fermented along with the hops.

That is, except when "Ain't Misbehavin'," the Fats Waller revue, comes to a theater near you, as it has in a rollicking Fats fest at Gateway Playhouse.

One of the all-time great Broadway revues - it won the Tony for best musical in 1978 and 10 years later became the only musical in the history of the Great White Way to be revived with the original cast - "Ain't Misbehavin'" loses none of its jumping jive as directed and choreographed by Bob Durkin and abetted by the flashy spats-and-hats costumes of Stephen Hollenbeck.

Set in a Harlem nightclub anchored by a bandstand and flanked by an upright piano and a couple of cocktail tables, the show opens with the title song's deceptively innocent lyrics: "No one to talk with/All by myself/No one to walk with/But I'm happy on the shelf/Ain't misbehavin'/ Savin' my love for you." In the licentious voice of Wayne Pretlow as the larger-than-life jazz legend, the words are a roguish lie, fooling no one, least of all his big-mama woman, sung by NaTasha Yvette Williams, who throws her weight around with comic aplomb in lyrical counterpoint to her no-nonsense alto. She endures but never tolerates competition for her man's roving eye. Aurelia Williams steals him and the show, temporarily, for the "Two Sleepy People" portion of the Tin Pan Alley medley, while LaQuet Sharnell propels her purse like a lethal baton on "Yacht Club Swing." Meanwhile, André Ward cuts a lean and mean rug on the hazy marijuana number, "Viper's Drag (The Reefer Song)," in which the suggestion of cannabis is strong enough that you'd swear Gateway's barn theater might harbor bales of hemp stashed backstage.

No less adept in their onstage virtuosity are the raucous-rhythm ensemble of Jimmy "Junebug" Jackson (drums), George Sessum (bass), Bob Carten (reeds), Alvin Trask (trumpet) and James Burton (trombone), led by musical director William A. Knowles, who masters Fats' signature stride chops on piano.

But the star of the show, unseen except for his likeness hanging over the stage at the opening, is Fats Waller, whose creative range swings from the low-comedy classic "Your Feet's Too Big," through such mainstream hits as "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" and "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie," to the sensually complex "Jitterbug Waltz," - as symphonically worthy as any masterpiece by that other uptown cat, the one they call Duke.

AIN'T MISBEHAVIN': The Fats Waller Musical Show. A revue based on a concept by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr. At Gateway Playhouse, 215 S. Country Rd., Bellport, through July 2. Tickets, $32-$38; 631-286-1133, www.gatewayplayhouse.com.

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.

review: ain’t misbehavin at gateway playhouse

Most people of a certain age will be familiar with songs such as “Ain’t Misbehavin”, “Two Sleepy People” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and some will know that the music for these came from one Thomas Waller, better known as “Fats.” If you go to the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport before July 2nd, you will hear many, many more of Fats Waller’s songs in this revue that ran for over 1600 performances on Broadway back in 1978.

Making a revue succeed is very difficult because it really is nothing more than a succession of songs, with no dialogue or story line and minimal scenery. The fact that this production really did get the place jumping is a tribute to the producers, stage managers and musical director but above all to a very talented cast who gave everything as they interpreted the varied moods that Fats Waller brought to his works.

You could not have dreamed up a more disparate looking set of artists, from the diminutive Laquet Sharnell with a voice that seems improbably large to the Fats Waller look-alike Wayne W. Pretlow, far from diminutive but who moved with deceptive grace and sang softly and sweetly when required.

The Harlem night club setting with upright piano, superbly played by Music Director William A. Knowles, was very evocative of the thirties, when Fats was in his heyday and created very different types of music for Downtown Manhattan and Harlem and then went on to be a great hit in Europe, before tragically dying of pneumonia at 39, after a life filled with excesses of all kinds. The costumes also really brought back the aura of those bygone days especially in “Lounging at the Waldorf.”

After opening with an original Fats Waller recording, the show features over thirty songs that have been seamlessly woven together. The timeless “Ain’t Misbehavin” featured all five artists before Wayne and NaTasha Yvette Williams launched into a stylized version of another classic, “Honeysuckle Rose.” The mood then changed to seduction, with Aurelia Williams delivering a steamy request to “Squeeze Me,” a request that would be very hard to deny!

Throughout the evening it was evident that this is a group of singers who really worked well together and the synergy was evident in “Jitterbug Waltz,” a very different mood set, where the blending of the voices really brought a haunting quality. Poor NaTasha, left without a partner for the dance sequence, worked the audience well in search of someone to dance with, but no luck!

Andre Ward combined with Wayne Pretlow in a number of duets where their different physiques and vocal styles worked extremely well, but it was in “The Viper’s Drag” that he really electrified the audience with his fascinating portrayal of a guy getting high. I must admit to wondering just what was in his smoke! The song is not subtitled “The Reefer Song” for nothing! Of course, the subject matter is doubtful but it was obvious throughout the evening that Fats and his lyric writers did not set out to be PC. Deriding your girlfriend’s big feet or scorning someone as ‘fat and greasy’ probably wouldn’t go down well if written today, and many of the lyrics must have been considered very risqué, back in those relatively innocent days before the Second World War.

The evening ended with a mélange of favorites after the company performed a song in a very different vein. In “Black and Blue” the subject of racial discrimination comes to the fore in asking why being a different color should bring with it sadness.

This show proved to be an absolute delight. Five very talented performers, together with a great pianist and band, showed us something of the genius of Mr. Thomas (Fats) Waller and filled the theater with fun, pathos, sensuality, satire and driving rhythms. The first night audience certainly showed their feelings as they gave the cast and musicians a very well deserved standing ovation.

–Roy Bradbrook