IN BRIEF Hard-working, talented cast and band make the joint jump, and this delightful revue fly
Running just the right length at two hours including interval, this is an infectiously good-natured stomp around the song catalogue of the great Fats Waller. The excellent band of five (including unseen but heard percussion) pump out an authentic, just-right sound for this revue starring the popular songs of the man who made jazz fun- the great Fats Waller (at his height in America in the late 1920s and 30s) whose engaging personality made him that rarity- an all-round entertainer who sang, wrote songs, played piano and who lit up his own songs, singing in that distinctive gruff voice, with a twinkle in his eye. You can hear it, right there in the music. And the audience hears it in the maestro’s own inpromptu (recorded) words which kick the show off.
This is the first revival in almost 25 years of this musical revue, a compilation of numbers with little or no connecting dialogue, almost a show without a book (well, at best, a pamphlet)- and credit where its due, this production gets it right everywhere it matters. The set, the band, the singers, the costumes are all well-chosen and lovingly presented.
Entering the auditorium your eyes are bathed in an ingeniously-crafted boutique-sized, shimmering gold and bronze Art Deco-inspired set (by designer takis). The gold and bronze dance floor thrusting out gets a good old workout, and I loved the piano truck which, though simple, made me smile. The theatre’s main house space has rarely been used so well.
From the standards like “Honeysuckle Rose” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” to the comedy-slanted numbers like “Your Feet’s Too Big” and Fat and Greasy” to the narcotically-stylised “Viper’s Drag” (and its attendant sinuous choreography) and the heartfelt, soulful “Black and Blue”, pretty much everything comes off at its best, with perhaps a couple of time-specific wartime numbers (“When the Nylons Bloom Again”, Cash for your Trash”) wearing not as well as the other, earlier works, being my only slight reservation. Still, the show’s structure and placement of songs is otherwise well-balanced and smart. The occasional slower pieces are well-spotted and give a welcome variation to the pace, the scintillating close harmonies of “Black and Blue” being my particular highlight.
The very talented singer and actor Tyrone Huntley’s debut here as a director shows him managing the pace and focusing on the presentation of the songs, whilst also investing each song with some subtext of interactions between the cast, which all pays off.
It is the twinkle in the eye of the music that the hard-working cast of five mostly succeed in reviving. It would be unfair to single anyone out as they work so well as an ensemble. All have their chance in the spotlight, and all shine. Three women and two men, dance-strong (in Oti Mabuse’s vital, sometimes frenetic but always interesting choreography) who know when to belt out a good song, and when to inject some soul into the telling. My only reservation here was just in the opener, “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, the vocal choreography was a little over-embellished, fine for those who knew the song well, but for new audiences, my thought was “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. A mention, too must be made for the carefully designed and crafted costumes (takis again) which are a joy to see – all tailored with laudable attention to detail.
At the end of it, the audience leaves uplifted, with a smile on its face and a spring in its step, having had a toe-tappingly good time. You can’t ask for much more than that, can you?
AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ plays at Southwark Playhouse until June 1st. More information and tickets here