The genius of Fats Waller wasn’t just in his ability to create timeless music that appeals to everyone, it was also in the stories the music tells. The revue-style AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ transports you to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, but it’s more than a time warp. It was a different time, to be sure, but the stories it tells, about culture and race, sex and relationships, are as relevant today as they’ve ever been.
AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ is known for drawing some of the most impressive talents you’ll see anywhere, and the Delaware Theatre Company’s production, directed by co-creator Richard Maltby, Jr., lives up to its reputation. As I sat in the theater watching, I wondered how I could write a 300-400 word review. The show is amazing, the performers are amazing — what more is there to say?
From the first notes, you’re transported. When Cynthia Thomas, in the role made famous by Nell Carter, entered the stage, I felt like a little girl seeing Cinderella at Disneyland — Oh, she’s so beautiful! And she’s got the talent to match. She’s soon joined by Kecia Lewis and Debra Walton (last seen on the DTC stage in COOKIN’ AT THE COOKERY), just as lovely and with their own strong personalities. The male leads, Doug Askew (last seen on the DTC stage in CROWNS) and Eugene Fleming light up the stage, too, especially in the second act. Fleming’s “The Viper’s Drag” (traditionally known as “The Reefer Song”) and Askew’s “Your Feet’s Too Big,” showcasing songs Waller created for the less mainstream Harlem crowd, are highlights. Still, even though the revue is very much a musical exploration of Waller himself, the women are the heart of the show.
It would be easy to write off Thomas’s “Squeeze Me” as a typical sex pot revue, except that there’s little typical, even today, about sex kittens that don’t fit the parameters set by Cosmo. Lewis is a bit more demure, yet commanding. Walton has a youthful innocence about her, even coming off as ditzy and below the other women’s league, but it’s all an act. When she brings it, she brings it.
The show is wildly entertaining, but even at its lightest (and the show is quite comic), it has a deeper story to tell. The show’s high point is “Black and Blue,” performed by the full company sitting on chairs. The song was originally created by Waller for the 1929 Broadway show Hot Chocolates; it later became an anthem against racial discrimination through the recordings of Louis Armstrong, and that’s the interpretation shown. It’s incredibly powerful, without being heavy-handed, reminding us that we’re really not that different from these characters from another era.
AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ closes on April 27th — don’t miss it!
Conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horowitz
Music by Fats Waller
Directed by Richard Maltby, Jr.
April 2 – 27, 2014
Delaware Theatre Company
200 Water Street
Wilmington, DE 19801