Did Fats Waller write every great jazz song of the 20’s and 30’s? It sure feels this way when you peruse the 30-strong song list for “Ain’t Misbehavin’, We’re talking about standard after standard from bluesy songs like “Aint Nobody’s Business” and “Black and Blue, to jaunty dance tunes like “the Joint is Jumpin,” “Honeysuckle Rose” and Jitterbug Waltz,” to satirical songs like “Loungin’ at the Waldorf and “When the Nylons Bloom Again,” to pop songs like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “I’m Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter”—all of them lyrically witty and melodically rich enough to be covered by all of the greats for decades.
Waller was quite a character. A brilliant composer and virtuosic stride piano player with a flip vocal style and a propensity to clown at the keys, he was one of the greatest artists to immerge from the Harlem Renaissance. Someday, I’d love to see a play about his life. Actor Calvin Broxton offers an impression of the entertainer, but Ain’t Misbehavin’ is really a straight musical review in the classical Broadway style. The rotund Broxton plus one leading man-type and three women offer what a contemporary audience might think of as music video-style interpretations of Waller’s songs on a beautiful set: a shiny-floored cabaret, framed by a gleaming piano-key archway.
For what it is, this “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is not as musically sharp and polished as it should be. The show is also Broawayitized enough to not be for jazz purists. But it’s impossible to sit through without tapping your toes and cracking a few smiles. Being a matinee in Boston, there were many at the opening who seemed to remember these songs when they enjoyed radio play, and they appeared giddy with nostalgia. Anyone else who is at all wired to receive these kinds of tunes will find themselves tickled by at least a handful of these interpretations.
I loved watching Lori Tishfield, wearing a shimmering dress and clown shoes, transform the goofy song “Your Feet’s Too Big” in which a lover is spurned for her enormous “pedal extremities” into a sexy burlesque number. I also enjoyed watching Davron S. Monroe play an almost 70’s-style pimp in a slowed down, savored version of the reefer-extolling, “Viper Drag.” Good to see some Misbehavin’.
Directed and choreographed by Josie Bray with musical direction by Catherine Stornetta, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” plays at the Lyric through December 17.