by Sally Mitani
Ain't Misbehavin' is a sizzling, lively tribute to Fats Waller and Harlem between the world wars, where music, dance, art, and literature bloomed in a brief and beautiful kind of Camelot. A lot of the luminaries who passed through that neighborhood, like Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson, left serious, game-changing artistry in their wake. Fats Waller might not be quite in their arena, but he contributed a lot of style and flair. In Harlem, they particularly loved the piano, and Waller was one of the early adopters of a certain springy left-hand rhythm called "stride." He was also a composer, spinning off hit songs effortlessly.
This is a revue, a cousin to the musical. If musical comedy is theater that sprouted songs, a revue is a music program that sprouted acting. This one, created in 1978 by Richard Maltby and Murray Horowitz, ran for over a decade on Broadway and is probably the reason why most people can stumble through a few lines from Waller's most famous songs, "Honeysuckle Rose" and the title song "Ain't Misbehavin'."
Set in a 1940s after-hours speakeasy in Harlem, the revue, which runs through January 1 at Performance Network, features three women (Kron Moore, K Edmonds, and Jennifer Cole) and two men (Darrian Ford and James Bowen) who sing and act out Waller's greatest hits, throwing in a little dance and between-song banter. The four-person band, composed of piano, sax, bass, and drums, is all white. Coincidence? It's more likely a sly role reversal. Jazz and blues artists like Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Ethel Waters put places like the Cotton Club on the map, but they played to largely white audiences, and the management never let them forget they were the hired help.
The first act glides by quickly, mixing Waller's great old chestnuts with weaker, less memorable material. The real showstoppers come in a cluster in the second half of the show. The close juxtaposition of Ford's beautifully grotesque "Viper's Drag," followed
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