Center Theater Group celebrates the 30th anniversary of Fats Waller (1904-43) revue “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” by bringing together the original helmer, choreographer, orchestrations, set and lighting designers, costumes and even one cast member, Armelia McQueen. Reunion affirms not only the preeminence of the Tony Award winner among composer’s trunk shows, but its transcendence of the ordinary “and-then-he-wrote” genre. Who’d have guessed the freshest act in town would be a decades-old staging of century-old material?
Show kicks off with eight familiar upbeat numbers — “Honeysuckle Rose”; “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business”; the title tune — confounding those expecting a plot-free concert. In fact, helmer-creator Richard Maltby Jr. steers his quintet into dozens of stories, though most are only seconds long. Within numbers, cast constantly establishes specific relationships with word, gesture and look: Lovers meet, quarrel and reconcile; actors fight for focus; strangers flirt (often with front-row spectators).
Three such “tales” are enacted during “The Jitterbug Waltz”: Passion-besotted Eugene Barry-Hill and Debra Walton (totally charming) share a Cotton Club-like dance floor with shy misfits Doug Eskew and McQueen right out of Paddy Chayefsky, while Roz Ryan just seeks relief from sore feet.
It’s roughly equivalent to Waller’s “stride piano” technique, in which the left hand knocks out the rhythm while the right riffs merrily; here, the songs anchor the ensemble, but there’s so much good stuff going on besides. (We’d enjoy it even more if so many lyrics and muttered ad libs weren’t lost in muddy sound. Perhaps opting for the Mark Taper Forum might’ve aided diction and lent the intimacy the tuner enjoyed in its 1978 Manhattan Theater Club debut.)
The ballroom segues into a panorama of Waller’s Harlem, from WWII USO shows (“The Ladies Who Sing With the Band”) to demi-monde parties (“The Joint Is Jumpin'”) and urban street voguing (“Spreadin’ Rhythm Around”). John Lee Beatty’s glorious Art Deco set, and the late Randy Barcelo’s vibrant costumes (re-created by Gail Baldoni), capture the period with stylish precision, while the late Luther Henderson’s orchestrations — superbly interpreted by William Foster McDaniel’s onstage combo — encompass mid-century jazz’s full range with nods to ragtime and swing.
A dark detour begins with “The Viper’s Drag” and “Reefer Song” as Barry-Hill, in Arthur Faria’s fluid choreography, stops the show with jaw-dropping carnality. Songs either torchy (Ryan’s devastating “Mean to Me”) or lewd (“Find Out What They Like”) carry the ring of autobiography, leading to Maltby’s most daring coup — immediately following the raucous audience-participation “Fat and Greasy” with the whipcrack of “Black and Blue” (“I’m white inside/But that don’t help my case/ ‘Cause I can’t hide/What is on my face.”)
Maybe those feelings contributed to the devil-to-the-hindmost attitude reflected in “Bizness”: “live to die before I’m 40” (which Waller did). But he was defined primarily by joy, so “Ain’t Misbehavin'” winds up sunny rather than anguished.
Most trunk shows impress through their repertoire alone; they either fail to locate individual personality in a Rodgers, Loesser or Bacharach & David songbook, or else trade on the brittle hauteur of a Porter or Coward. In each case, one warms to the songs rather than to the tunesmith himself.
But Fats was a people’s bard whose love for humanity infuses the entire catalog presented here. Tellingly, 21 lyricists (none named Waller) are credited on the show’s 31 songs, yet one and all share the same measures of rueful wisdom, healthy sensuality and tolerance of human folly. Surely that unity is attributable to the one common denominator, their music man.
Fats Waller must have been wonderful company on the evidence of two blissful hours spent with this peerless showcase of his art.