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Recreating ‘Fats’: Harlem circa 1940

By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review

Many years ago at the interval of what was likely the regional theater premiere of the 1978 Tony Award-winner for Best Musical, “Ain’t Misbehavin’ The Fats Waller Musical Show,” I overheard this remark, one of my favorites of all time: “They’re all black, and there’s no plot. What kind of musical is this?”

Lest there be any doubt as to the genre, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a musical revue for the most part, comprising pianist/composer Fats Waller’s spicy, jazzy, bluesy oeuvre.

In addition to Best Musical, the list of the Tony Awards included performer Nell Carter and director Richard Maltby, Jr.

Cast includes (l to r) Cynthia Thomas, Tony Perry, Yvonne, Ron Christopher Jones and Anise Ritchie (Photo by Aaron Rumley)

Cast includes (l to r) Cynthia Thomas, Tony Perry, Yvonne, Ron Christopher Jones and Anise Ritchie (Photo by Aaron Rumley)

The other performers, whose first names forever identify the characters in the musical revue, were Charlaine Woodard, Armelia McQueen, André de Shields and Ken Page.

Since the Broadway production, several of them appeared on various San Diego stages, most notably “Ain’t Misbehavin’” Tony nominee André de Shields, who created the role of Noah “Horse” Simmons in Jack O’Brien’s original Old Globe production of “The Full Monty” and then repeated it on Broadway.

Yvonne (Photo by Aaron Rumley)

Yvonne (Photo by Aaron Rumley)

Currently through August 7 at North Coast Repertory, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is vivaciously revived with a splendid company and excellent musicality. The production is directed by Yvette Freeman, a veteran of the New York and international touring productions (she replaced Carter).

In the company are (the one-named) Yvonne, a graduate of San Diego State, Cynthia Thomas, Ron Christopher Jones, Anise Ritchie and Tony Perry.

They soar, especially in the more relaxed second act, which contains such enjoyable numbers as “Your Feet’s Too Big” (with its devastatingly funny explication, “Your pedal extremities are colossal”), “The Viper’s Song” (that reefer’s five-foot long!), “Find Out What They Want and How They Like It,” the beautifully sung ensemble number “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” and “Fat and Greasy.”

Cynthia Thomas (seated), Yvonne, and Ron Christopher Jones (Photo by Aaron Rumley)

Cynthia Thomas (seated),
Yvonne, and Ron Christopher Jones (Photo by Aaron Rumley)

A dynamite instrumental combo is elevated house right, comprising pianist/conductor Kevin Toney, Danny King (drums), Greg McKinney (bass), Julian Davis (trumpet) and Malcolm Jones (reeds). They alone would be worth the admission cost in anyone’s theater.

Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 9.05.24 AMCoolest of the women is the self-assured, smooth-voiced Ritchie, who’s had quite a career on the West Coast and is finally making her North Coast Rep debut. Thomas has a wide-ranging voice with plenty of room on the top. The two guys are nicely varied as to vocal and body type. All create an easy and smooth ensemble, move well to Julia Lema’s choreography and certainly respond whole-heartedly to Lanny Hartley’s musical direction.

Marty Burnett whips up an appropriately flashy set and Anastasia Paulova’s costumes have equal pizzazz. Matt Novotny is lighting designer and Melanie Chen is responsible for the clean mix of sound.

In all, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable trip down “Fats” Lane.

— Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. You can follow her blog at charlenebaldridge.com or reach her at charb81@gmail.com.

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