“The joint is jumpin’; It’s really jumpin’; Come in, cats, and check your hats: I mean this joint is jumpin’,” from “This Joint is Jumpin’,” music by Fats Waller, lyrics by Andy Razaf and C. J. Johnson.
42nd Sreet Moon’s artistic director, Darren Carollo will tell anyone who will listen that Ain’t Misbehavin’ is the best work that he’s done at The Moon, and who can disagree? Subtitled The Fats Waller Musical Show, the 1978 Broadway show was highly decorated, including the Tony for Best Musical. For The Moon, Jeffrey Polk directs an animated and infectious production.
Thomas “Fats” Waller sadly died in 1943 at the age of 39 years. In his short life, he made an indelible mark in music as a Tin Pan Alley jazz composer and pianist of the greatest renown. This revue splits between Waller’s own compositions and others he recorded and made famous. Waller’s music varies from soulful ballads to upbeat jazz pop, but he is most noted for his propulsive stride piano style, with melody played on the right hand and bass lines on the left. Among the gems in this treasure trove, the cast gives high voltage performances of perhaps his most famous tunes – “Honeysuckle Rose,” “This Joint is Jumpin’,” and the titular “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
The cast knocks it out of the park. They chirp and jive non-stop, individually and collectively, with great love for the material. Highlights abound. Vocally, Katrina McGraw displays great versatility, sometimes with strong tremolo and other times with comic soprano shriek. She can also caress in pianissimo as she does with the quiet love song “Squeeze Me.” Erica Richardson also possesses strong pipes. Her most distinctive number is the somber ballad, “Mean to Me,” a plaintive plea against abuse. The third female cast member is Ashley Gallo. Also a talented singer, she leads the dance, from an energetic tap solo to a duet and heading the cast in dance chorus.
Branden “Noel” Thomas’s demeanor makes you want to smile. He looks like he could play Fats Waller. Hilarious in his solo, with grand gesticulations and expressions and seemingly a little tipsy, he complains to his girl that “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Aris-Allen Roberson gets to show off his athleticism in some of his stage movement. But his big solo is also a bit of a surprise, which I won’t reveal except to say that it is a reminder that marijuana was not always illegal in this country. A final chilling and heart wrenching highlight is “Black and Blue,” sung by the entire cast. However, it is another message that you’ll have to see the show to learn about.
42nd Street Moon’s positioning in the Bay Area theater market is to revive classic American musicals. Many of their productions are long on cast and thin on instrumental accompaniment. For this one, they employ a four-piece ensemble that provides a full sound to enhance the overall musical experience. In addition to music director Dave Dombrusky accompanying on piano, wailing woodwinds, thumping bass, and percussive percussion add to the effect. The song book of Ain’t Misbehavin’ is consistently entertaining, although the experience would be a little richer if there were better contextualizing of the score with more vignettes about Fats Waller and his time.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr., and Murray Horwitz and created by Richard Maltby, Jr., is produced by 42nd Street Moon and plays at Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA through October 29, 2017.