The Great Waller: Ain't Misbehavin'

By day, Thomas "Fats" Waller sold beboppy tunes on Tin Pan Alley. Come nighttime, when all the cool cats were out on the prowl, the jazz great traveled uptown to take part in the Harlem Renaissance. Lucky for us, many of those delicious toe-tapping tunes have been tied up together into a simmering musical revue called Ain't Misbehavin'. The 1978 Tony Award-winning show, conceived by Richard Maltby Jr., works as a sort of homage to the jazz greats of a bygone era. But as played by the charmed cast at The Ensemble Theatre, everything about Waller and his cohorts feels completely fresh and alive and new.

The whole thing opens with a rousing rendition of Waller's 1929 "Ain't Misbehavin'," a head-boppin', tongue-in-cheek song about trying to stay true when your love's not around. The big sounds of this formidable cast all but blow you out of your seat right from the get-go. And then there's the limber, easy dancing, which feels completely organic to the music. Nothing here is tacked on or flashy, but all of it surprises and delights.

Take Anthony Boggess-Glover and Kenyatta Herring's rendition of the smoldering "Honeysuckle Rose," the tune that's been covered by everyone from Tony Bennett to Marlene Dietrich and is full of irresistibly sexy lines like "I'm taking sips from your tasty lips." Herring is about as sultry as a woman can be with her rich, round voice sliding up and down Waller's song. And Boggess-Glover is a showman's showman. He has to work hard not to steal the spot­light every time he saunters across the stage in his easy way.

Even hotter is Raena White's "Squeeze Me," which she sings with her back to the wall and her arms wrapped about her own girly figure. She lays her head back and becomes a sort of dream of sensuality, cooing, "Squeeze me but don't tease me."

Although everyone in the cast can move, Tommie Harper III and Aisha Us­sery are especially good. Harper dances like a man made of rubber bands. He snakes and jumps and spins across the stage in "How Ya Baby," asking the women in the cast to dance: "I'm in the groove...Come on let's move."

The show includes a whole series of tunes from Waller's later period. Songs like "Jitterbug Waltz," "When the Nylons Bloom Again" and "Cash for Your Trash" point to Waller's ability to swing with the politics of the times. The Ensemble's cast keeps the whole joint jumpin' as they bring down the curtain for intermission.

The second half of the show is actually the more interesting. The uptown songs, created for a Harlem audience, include references to smoking marijuana — Harper sings "Viper's Drag" with twirling eyes. Herring gives a slowed-down, melancholic rendition of "Mean to Me," which is one of the best numbers in the show. She sings simply and from the heart, looking out at the audience with such deep feeling, it's enough to send shivers down your spine as she murmurs the tune's painful lines: "You treat me coldly, each day of the year, and you always scold me, whenever somebody is near, Dear." And Ussery shows off her big, beautiful voice in "Keepin' Out of Mischief."

The night I saw the show, there were lots of laughs, too. Boggess-Glover had the house screaming in laughter with "Your Feet's Too Big," a little ditty that includes lines like "Say up in Harlem, at a table for two, there were four of us, me, your big feet and you!" Timing is everything here, and Boggess-Glover's got it down. Also hysterical is White and Herring's version of "Find Out What They Like," a decidedly unfeminist song of advice on how to keep a man: "Find out what they like and how they like it and give it to them just that way." The ladies sing and strut across the stage, enjoying every rousing minute of the song.

But of all the tunes of the night, the most memorable has to be "Black and Blue," about the effects of racism during the Jim Crow Era of the 1920s. The whole show has been directed by Patdro Harris with extraordinary energy and vitality, but here he asks the audience to sit back and stay still for a moment as each of the five performers sits on the stage as though for a portrait of the age, singing in carefully timed phrasing, "What did I do to be so black and blue."

Ain't Misbehavin' is moving, funny and energetic enough to pull you to the edge of your seat, clapping your hands to the beat.

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Lee Williams