Until “Fats” Waller penned that song, “Ain’t Misbehavin”, ain’t and misbehavin were two unacceptable words; words that would likely not be heard today, if not for the popularity of composer Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller.
Waller began his professional career as a pianist in 1919 at the young age of 15. By the time of his death in 1943, Waller had become an American musical icon. The 28 songs he had written in just 24 years are so intricately woven into our cultural fabric, we seldom stop to consider just how valuable they are.
The Black Repertory Theater of Kansas City honors Waller by opening the company’s 2018-2019 series with “Ain’t Misbehavin.” The company has been celebrated for its recent move to the historic 18th and Vine district by the Missouri Arts Council, The Kauffman Foundation and Sister’s Circle, among others. In business less than 5 years, it is presenting the bulk of its series at the Gem Theater.
The company’s founder, Damron Russel Armstrong, leads a five-person cast on this fast-paced romp through the life of “Fats” Waller. In Armstrong’s crisp new production, seasoned actresses Victoria Barbee and JaNay Adger do their best to get two no-good men to do right, while they tell this fascinating story, based loosely on Waller’s life in song, dance and comedy.
The charm of this swinging musical production emanates in the rapscallion chemistry between Damron Armstrong and Christopher Barksdale-Burns. Armstrong plays a fast-talking big-time raconteur and Barksdale-Burns, a fast-walking smooth as silk ladies-man always looking for something new.
This pair is quite believable as they knock back a few drinks, turn on the charm and go out on the town. Waller’s comedy is excellently portrayed in novelty numbers such as, “Fat and Greasy” and “Your Feet’s Too Big”. They bring out the dark side in “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” and the stoned-out hipster of “If You a Viper”.
A superb dancer, Micah Flowers is perfect in the role of the bobble-headed temptress. She started with the Kansas City Ballet, then studied with the Dance Theater of Harlem and attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
The choreographer for the Black Repertory Theater is Christopher Barksdale-Burns. After 21 years with the Kansas City Ballet, dancing on Broadway and touring internationally, Barksdale-Burns is a triple threat excelling in acting, singing and dancing.
Waller’s wonderful music drives the thin plot. The stand-alone hit number of this show is the five-part vocal harmony of Waller’s “Black & Blue”.
Other timeless melodies from “Fats” Waller include, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, “It’s A Sin To Tell a Lie”, “Honeysuckle Rose” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down (and Write Myself a Letter)”. Waller’s composition, “Sit Right Down (and Write Myself a Letter)” was recorded by Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole and in 2012 by Sir. Paul McCartney. In a 2014
Blue Note recording, pianist Jason Moran brought Waller’s music to the Hip Hop generation with “All Rise, a joyful elegy for Fats Waller”.
“Ain’t Misbehavin” shows through Oct. 14, at the Gem Theater – www.brtkc.org