A Jumpin’ Tribute to Fats and Old Harlem

This ain’t your typical revival show with a cornball plot. Ain’t Misbehavin, the Fats Waller Musical Show transforms the old Birch North Park Theatre into a smoky Harlem cabaret. An expressive cast belts out bawdy songs loaded with double entendres and language from a bygone era.

The cast of five, a band, and pianist, evoke the culture of Harlem in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s when Fats Waller was bigger than Elvis.

Jenelle Randall, Rufus Bonds Jr., Amber Mercomes, David LaMarr, & Sylvia  MacCalla. Photo: Ken Jacques

Jenelle Randall, Rufus Bonds Jr., Amber Mercomes, David LaMarr, & Sylvia MacCalla. Photo: Ken Jacques

Wearing a derby hat, conductor Lanny Hartley deftly evokes Waller and plays the upright piano on stage, but always with his back turned.  The band is terrific, especially drummer Wreckless Watson, though the guys are usually obscured behind a scrim.

Five lovable characters sing about “Lounging at the Waldorf,” and “Lookin’ Good But Feelin’ Bad,” and it’s remarkable how timeless and toe-tapping the music is.

Jenelle Randall whirls a mean handbag in a duet with David Lamarr. Photo:  Ken Jacques

Jenelle Randall whirls a mean handbag in a duet with David LaMarr. Photo: Ken Jacques

Rufus Bonds Jr. charms throughout the program with hilarious numbers like “Your Feet’s Too Big,” and really he hams it up in “Fat and Greasy” with David LaMarr.

In Ain’t Misbehavin’, mink stoles are still the fashion, you know, the ones with heads and little feet attached. Women worry about nylons and wartime recycling. And large women are sexy.

But the lone “skinny girl” Jenette Randall grabs attention as crazy Charlaine in “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” She makes her whiney voice boom in “Yacht Club Swing,” whew, she knows how to wear a captain’s hat.  She’s also loose and explosive in dance numbers.

Amber Mercomes is superb in “Squeeze Me,” though her rendition drifts into an operatic style that doesn’t quite fit the jazzy program.

The lyrics in several songs are sure to raise a few eyebrows, politically incorrect by today’s standards, and they are potent.

We are moved by Sylvia MacCalla in the role of Nell who sings “Mean to Me,” a song about abuse, and the ensemble’s flawless rendition of “Black and Blue” is beautiful and sad.  The line, “I’m white on the inside, but that don’t help my case” is an emotional commentary on how far we’ve come since Waller’s day.  The superb lighting of Matt Novotny adds more drama with spotlights illuminating faces.

The Tony-winning show has been going on since the Carter administration, and this revival is well suited to the old North Park Theatre.

Sparkly, colorful dresses for the women imply elegance, as do furs for the men. The simple art-deco set – an arch with two rings of lights and two cabaret tables- gives the show a retro vibe. Director/choreographer Ron Kelleum’s abstract approach keeps the mood upbeat.  Dances are lively and entertaining, and it’s fun and refreshing to laugh out loud.

A true wordsmith, Bonds carves up syllables in the tune “Honeysuckle Rose” with just enough emphasis on the “s” sound and vulgarity.  There’s no dialogue, just frisky lyrics to drive the show, and by the second act, “The Joint is Really Jumpin.’”

Mr. LaMarr has us hooked from his first drag in “The Viper’s Drag,” better known as the “Reefer Song.” He sings with gravelly sensuality, a bit like Sammy Davis Jr., and giggles and puffs while his pals cheer him on.  The entire theatre turns a dark green, and smoke swirls over the stage and into the crowd.

The Band: Greg McKinney, bass; David Burnett, reed 1; Earl Vaults, reed 2; John Meyers, trombone; Julian Davis, trumpet; Wreckless Watson, drums; Hartley, piano.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ runs through Oct. 13 at the Birch North Park Theatre. www.sdmt.org,

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