Reviewed by Will Stackman
"Fats" is back! The musical legacy of composer and stride piano player Thomas "Fats" Walker is getting a gold-plated revival at North Shore Music Theatre. IRNE winner Kent Gash, Associate Artistic Director of the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, who staged a memorable "Pacific Overtures" seen at NSMT, is reunited with Trinity's Joe Wilson Jr. from last year's award-winning "Top Dog/ Under Dog" and a four other dynamic performers for a high-energy upclose presentation of this perennial. Wilson displays singing and dancing abilities right up with his award-winning acting skills. Natasha Yvette Williams makes the role originally created by Nell Carter her own, and as she proved in "Abyssinia," her voice is better. World-traveler Monique L. Midgette, recently back from Hong Kong, and bubbly regional theatre performer, Idara Victor, show great range as well, getting laughs and evoking heartbreak as required. Bass baritone Ken Robinson came up from Atlanta with director Gash, having recently appeared in "Jelly's Last Jam." He' ll be doing working on an M.F.A. at Yale next year and would be welcome in any NSMT production. The sixth member of the ensemble is music director Darrell G. Ivey at the piano(s), who makes Waller's compositions come alive, and gets full-toned jazz and swing from a pit full of local jazz men.
The tunes in "Ain't Misbehavin'" range from the title song, done with Harry Brooks, lyrics by Andy Razaf to lesser-known wartime numbers like "The Ladies Who Sing With the Band" and "When Nylons Bloom Again," lyrics by George Marion, Jr. Some are songs that Waller made famous, like "Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do" (1922, Grainger & Robbins) or "Your Feet's Too Big" (1936 Benson & Fisher). What this revue makes abundantly clear is the enormous talent of "the mayor of Harlem" to create and perform enduring classics of jazz and swing. The insightfulness of the lyrics which accompany his tunes, including new material by Maltby, like "Lounging at the Waldorf" makes this show more than just a compilation of Greatest Hits. Gash's formal staging of Waller, Brooks & Razaf's "Black and Blue" near the end of the second act is true political theatre. And few who see this production will forget Wilson's stunning monodrama done to "The Viper's Drag."
This is a show to keep coming back to, and definitely not another "jukebox" effort. If anything Waller's music and his treatment of lyrics, from those of his most notable partner, Andy Razaf, to standards he recorded still sound fresh and true. Gash's staging is innovative--especially Wilson's Act One exit, and his spectacular entrance in Act Two. Emily Beck's formal setting combined with William H. Grant III's lighting are striking as is the sassy look of Austin K. Sanderson's colorful costumes. In NSMT's arena, one number flows into another, with great audience contact. With today's tendency to run certain shows forever, it's surprising that this collation hasn't got a permanent home somewhere. It can of course be done very simply.
North Shore Music Theatre has been honored over the years for multiracial casting and including predominately Black shows in their seasons, like last falls _Abysiniia_ in conjunction with Goodspeed, or their support for Speakeasy_s bid to present the New Englandpremiere of _Caroline or Change._ It's unfortunate that inner-city audiences aren't likely to get out to see "Ain't Misbehavin'" in large numbers. It's also unfortunate that the considerable North Shore audience doesn't make it into Boston very often, except via charter buses to big box shows in the theatre district. "Caroline or Change" has been extended at the BCA, but even in Boston's traditional multiracial South End, audiences have been predominantly older and white. Jamaica Plain's venerable Footlight Club is opening a multicultural version of the 1995 "Hot Mikado," the redone version of a show Billy Rose created to star Bill Robinson in the late '30s. They'll probably be able to attract a mixed audience from their neighborhood, but won't get much attention citywide for such efforts. Too many other recent productions, both legitimate and musical have made no special effort either to encourage minority casting or to reach out for a wider audience. One notable exception was a recent road-trip by the Hovey Players of Waltham who took their twelve member "Midsummer Nights' Dream" into the new Arts center in Dudley Sq., Roxbury to help celebrate its opening in the renovated Hibernian Hall. Two of the shows were done midmorning to accommodate middle school audiences. The rest of the summer doesn't look so hopeful, though TheatreZone over in Chelsea is doing an outdoor "Rhinocerous" in both English and Spanish--in alternate nights--working with local actors and their core company.