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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “Waller show smokes, literally”

    Jazz pianist, entertainer and larger-than-life personality Thomas “”Fats”” Waller’s died in 1943, but the fruits of his musical and social genius ripens on the stage of the Arizona Theatre Company’s Temple of Music and Art in bursts of delicately flavored rhythms, voluptuous dances and razor-brilliant direction and staging.

    The Arizona Theatre Company’s production of “”Ain’t Misbehavin'”” — first conceived in 1978 by Broadway veterans Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr. — is an exuberant musical tribute to the great pianist, transporting audiences back to the darkened speakeasies and bright bandstands of the Harlem Renaissance. In the process it manages to illuminate the humor, sexuality and social commentary of that era in ways that are too seldom visited.

    Set to a score composed by Fats himself, the current production is scant on dialogue but bursting with character. Under the direction of Kent Gash, in a return appearance at the Company, dozens of hits from Waller’s songbook, composed well over six decades ago, are reinvigorated by an intimate cast given full license to explore, express and reflect upon the full spectrum of Fats’ musical innovation and social genius.

    While some 66 years after his death it might be tempting to relegate the work of Fats Waller to a sort of sentimental obsolescence, Gash and his small, dedicated cast brilliantly avoid such a misstep. “”Ain’t Misbehavin'”” sizzles and smokes, quite literally at times, with bright lights, vibrant costumes, flamboyant acting and a superb live band for two hours awash in sexual promiscuity, illicit drug use and the devastations of racism. Through this thoughtful and commanding staging, a lively musical revue is transformed into an urgent and refreshingly unabashed reminder of perhaps how little has changed in our societal mores and conditions since the heydays of jazz and prohibition.

    In a performance of the 1934 number “”The Viper’s Drag/The Reefer Song”” that nearly steals the show, Christopher L. Morgan gyrates and croons around the stage (nearly landing in the laps of select audience members along the way) as he describes his dreams about “”a reefer five feet long.”” The alternating audience reactions to this scene — some delighted, others quite stoic — are an additional treat if one can manage to tear their eyes from Mr. Morgan’s devilishly playful dancing long enough to sneak a glance around the playhouse.

    In present-day America — where, as the Washington Post reported in 2008, one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are locked away behind prison bars — compositions such as “”(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue”” can serve as painful reminders of our collective history of racism and also how past injustices extend into the present.

    Through a simple design of chairs and lights, the solemn staging of haunting scene has each performer austerely aligned facing the audience — allowing each to literally sit with the encumbered and oppressive feelings of an emotionally bewildering persecution and express it from their core with nothing but each of their faces lighted as they powerfully harmonize the finale of the song: “”What did I do to be so black and blue?””

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