To say that “Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical Show” is a surefire hit is neither overreaching or inaccurately forecasting the impending success of the current revival of the much-loved revue, which premiered in 1978 as a cabaret show in New York City and is now playing at the Signature Theatre in Shirlington, Virginia.
The revival is no less than the original which starred the late, great Nell Carter. What this production has done, while staying true to what Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horowitz conceived and directed more than 40 years ago, is to personalize it and endow the cabaret-style musical with a who’s who of local talent — Nova Y. Payton, Korin Walfall, Kevin McAllister, Solomon Parker III and Iyona Blake.
All the main vocalists in the cast have appeared in previous Signature Theatre productions such as “Jelly’s Last Jam,” “Billy Elliot” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
But the driving force, even amid the stellar vocals, energetic dance numbers and bawdy humor, is piano man Mark Meadows, who plays the legendary composer/pianist Fats Waller.
Meadows also serves as the musical director, leading a six-piece live musical ensemble of gifted and experienced jazz musicians.
Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller (May 21, 1904 – Dec. 15, 1943) was an American jazz pianist, organist, composer, singer, and comedic entertainer. His musical sensibilities were a central part of the Black music scene in America in the 1920s and 1930s.
“I made it my own by studying the score, studying Fats, and then using my own artistry to bring my sound to the music, all the while staying true to Luther Henderson’s arrangements,” Meadows said. “I also created lead sheets for the rhythm section so that they could put an authentic, ‘jazz’ feel to the music without worrying about flipping through many pages of a highly detailed score.”
The revue is a two-hour tour of Waller’s iconic tunes, including of course, the title tune and other gems such as “This Joint is Jumpin’,” “Mean to Me” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”
The talent on stage is liberally utilized in different combinations, giving each cast member solos, as well as joining individual voices for duets and ensemble numbers such as the moving ballad “Black and Blue” and the rollicking “Handful of Keys.”
One would be remiss not to point out the incredible dance numbers by Solomon Parker III, who defies gravity on “The Viper’s Drag” and “T’ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do.” Parker also handles the vocals with ease, and smoothly acts out numbers such as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and the hilarious duet “Fat and Greasy” with Kevin McAllister.
Iyona Blake also scores high on the drama scale, with her humorous antics on the racy “Squeeze Me” and “When the Nylons Bloom Again,” on which she and Nova Payton not only excel in their singing but add the extra dimension of comedic acting.
Payton, a well-known and respected local songstress, shows what she is really made of on solos “Cash for Your Trash” and “Mean to Me.” Her soaring vocals add to the ensemble numbers “Off-Time” and stand out on their own on duets such as “Find Out What They Like,” with Iyona Blake and “That Ain’t Right” with Kevin McAllister.
The small but ample Signature Theatre, located in the Shirlington business district, was made to feel like one of the legendary clubs of the era, with small tables decorated with period lamps and plush chairs. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the time when nightclubs such as the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom were the playgrounds of usually White high society patrons and the Harlem dives where Black patrons went out to play were filled with piano players thumping out the new rhythm that came to be known as swing.
The costumes, as well as the scenic design, by Sarita P. Fellows and Paige Hathaway respectively, were equally reflective of that glamorous era in history, when the Harlem Renaissance was in full flower and the authentically American musical genre, jazz, was taking the country — and world — by storm.
“The music is paramount,” Meadows said. “The music of Fats Waller is packed with wit, sexiness, and soul, which the musical personifies in every way. Every note, every inflection, every harmony reflects what this genius was able to accomplish in his music, Black excellence.”
Excellence is another word that best describes “Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical Show” at the Signature Theatre. Under the guidance of Joe Calarco, the Signature Theatre’s director of new works, the production sings, swings and fills the heart with joy while reminding the audience of a time gone by when many of the foundations of Black music in America were just coming into light for the entire population, regardless of race.
“All in all, I’m confident that the music is historically accurate, but has a fresh energy that one might hear in a jazz club of today,” Meadows said.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical Show” plays at the Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington (Shirlington Business District) through March 10. Several complementary programs are planned at the venue and at neighboring establishments during the run. For ticket and showtime information, go to www.sigtheatre.org.