Ain’t Misbehavin’ ain’t disappointin’

By Joe De Rosa

A smokey club in Bronzeville ‘round midnight. Beautiful people dancing to the sweet melody and easy rhythm of the stride piano and swinging band. 

At the piano sits a man as big as the world, playing, laughing, singing, drinking, joking, and revolutionizing American music. But no one’s thinking about revolutionizing now, not on this night. On this night, it’s all about the music. 

Drury Lane Theatre’s fine production of Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz’s 1978 Tony Award-winning Ain’t Misbehavin’, a fast-paced, high-energy, gorgeous homage to the greatness of the Jazz legend Fats Waller, is a trip back in time. More a musical celebration than bio-musical, its narration is spare. The description never interrupts the music because Waller’s music speaks for itself.  

Almost literally larger than life, with his prodigious talent, massive girth, flashy style, insatiable appetite for food, drink, and women, and endless energy, Waller composed, played, sang, and joked his way into the American songbook, reaching legendary status in his too-short 39 years.    

Fats was funny and clever, with sing-along hits like “Your Feet’s Too Big” and “Fat and Greasy”, but he could be sweet as a “Honeysuckle Rose” with a “Black and Blue” brooding soul deep as the rivers. Jazz author and critic Gary Giddins wrote, “His greatest joy was playing Bach on the organ, but he buttered his bread as a clown, complete with a mask… It consisted of a rakishly tilted derby, one size too small, an Edwardian mustache that fringed his upper lip, eyebrows as thick as paint and pliable as curtains, flirtatious eyes, a mouth alternately pursed or widened in a dimpled smile, and immense girth, draped in the expensive suits and ties of a dandy.” 

And always, Fats was larger than life. 

More than ably directed by E. Faye Butler and choreographed by MzFlo Walker-Harris, Ain’t Misbehavin’ leads off with the title tune and swings through a selection of the greatest hits of the Waller cannon under the music direction of William Foster McDaniel.

Lorenzo Rush leads the way with a bluesily beautiful performance as Fats, and the rest of the ensemble is equally tremendous. The show’s solid in the first act, and then it catches fire after the intermission with a series of songs that capture the vibrance, joy, heartbreak, and sensuality of the Harlem Renaissance. With McDaniel on piano leading the excellent five-piece band, Sharriese Y. Hamilton, James T. Lane, Alanna Lovely, Alexis J. Roston, Lorenzo Rush Jr., Micah Mixon, Austin Nelson Jr., and Aeriel Williams give too many outstanding performances to describe with any hope of doing them justice, but here are a few from Act 2 that stand out…

Lane’s “Vipers Drag” is a fun, sexy, slithering showstopper.

Sharriese Hamilton’s gorgeous “Mean to Me” is a heartbreaker.

Rush channels Waller’s comedic genius to perfection with “Your Feats Too Big” and then joins James to do it again on “Fat and Greasy.”

And then, without a single line of dialogue, the company’s stunning performance of “Black and Blue” conveys the pain felt and injustice faced by Black Americans with Waller’s Jazz treatise on the soul-crushing nature of racism in America.  

Though Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller died too young, he left lifetimes of music–giving us a 400-song Jazz journey from Bronzeville to Harlem, from the Waldorf Astoria to the gin-soaked midnight blues clubs, from obscurity to greatness–as his contribution to the American songbook,  

Eighty years later, with the Drury Lane’s Ain’t Misbehavin’, the music lives to tell his story.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ is now playing at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook, through August 18. Performance times vary; check the website at drurylanetheatre.com. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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