Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia is currently presenting “Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical Show.”
In the program notes, director Monique Midgette writes: “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a loving tribute to Mr. Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller’s incomparable jazz music.” While this is certainly an apt description of this brilliant show, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” also has an undercurrent which makes this show not only entertaining but intensely reflective, in spite of the fact that the work is all music, with limited spoken lines. Poet Langston Hughes, active in the Harlem Renaissance at the same time as Waller, wrote a poem called “Dream Boogie” which shines a light on Waller’s work. The poem has two voices. One voice celebrates the happy feeling of jazz, whereas the other explores the suffering below the surface which gives jazz its depth and its meaning: “You think it’s a happy beat? Listen to it closely: Ain’t you heard something underneath like a —” “Ain’t Misbehavin’” may answer this question which trails off . . .
First, though, the happy beat! The night-club setting (a club within the Toby’s club) emulates the Cotton Club and other venues of 1920s and 1930s Harlem, where artists such as Fats Waller would play. A nightclub sign with Art Deco lettering calls this “Fats Supper Club,” and, throughout the live performance, there are interspersed recorded vocal tracks of Waller as well as clips from his films. This is appropriate, as in addition to being a composer, pianist, and even organist, Waller was a showman with unparalleled charisma. His piano style was called “rollicking rhythm,” but the same may be said of his flamboyant stage presence and style.
The songs are sung (enacted, really) by five musical artists on stage throughout the entirety of the show. Each of the actor-singers’ performances is simply superb. The entire cast sparkles in unique renditions of Waller compositions such as “The Jitterbug Waltz,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and, of course, “Ain’t Misbehavin.’” Kadejah Oné gives us a very bluesy, and very moving, “Mean to Me,” while Bryan Jeffrey is spectacular in “Viper’s Drag” (a song about “reefer”). Kelli Blackwell joins Kadejah in an outstanding duet in “Find Out What They Like,” while Tobias A. Young channels Waller’s comedy spirit and patter in “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Kanysha Williams shines in “The Yacht Club Swing;” for this number she wears 1940s sailor-suit fashion, and elsewhere the performers dress in period fashions of the swing decades of the first half of the twentieth century. These included the years of World War II, and there are visual patriotic tributes to America during some of the show’s songs.
The happy beat, high fashions, and patriotic moments are juxtaposed with that somber “something underneath” which Hughes mentions in his poem: the gunshot and sirens seen and heard during “The Joint is Jumpin’” remind us of the urban crime of the period. The most poignant moment comes as the whole company sings “Black and Blue,” Waller’s indictment of the racial injustices of his era: “All my life through I’ve been so black and blue. I’m so forlorn, life’s just a thorn . . .” Projections of segregated water fountains and restaurants are shown to enhance the song’s meaning visually and recall Hughes’ haunting words: “You think it’s a happy beat?”
Another reason for the outstanding success of Toby’s production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” lies within the talented musicians off stage recreating the 1930’s swing sound in a small combo of seven pieces. The night we attended, Paige Rammelkamp was the outstanding conductor and pianist who brilliantly emulated the stride piano style of Fats Waller. However, this show might be seen more than once, as two other conductor-pianists perform as well, depending on the night. Thus, this music-driven show might have a slightly different sound on different evenings, a feature which lovers of jazz will appreciate.
“You like swing music?” is a musical question posed by performer Bryan Jeffrey in the patter to Waller’s song “How Ya Baby?” Even those who are unfamiliar with Fats Waller will likely respond with an enthusiastic “Yes!” after experiencing Toby’s fabulous “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” running through November 4.