Ain't Misbehavin', The Fats Waller Musical, performed in the retro ambience of The National World War II Museum's BB's Stage Door Canteen, begins with the title song, composed by Waller in 1929, and ends with "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now," released by Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra in 1932. Waller's music is lively and bawdy, playful and raw and sometimes recalls speakeasies ("The Joint is Jumpin'"), where liquor flowed freely and marijuana was rife.
"Everybody's here except the police, and they'll be here any minute," Polanco Jones Jr. laughs in "If You're a Viper," composed in 1936 by Stuff Smith and recorded by Waller as "The Reefer Song."
If there was any doubt our grandmothers and grandfathers kicked up their heels, Ain't Misbehavin' dispels that notion, depicting hip New Yorkers enjoying swanky nightlife on the town.
Conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz, the musical revue Ain't Misbehavin' premiered in 1978 on Broadway as a tribute to the Harlem Renaissance, when black musicians played at Manhattan clubs frequented by members of high society. A legendary composer, singer and comedian, Waller became internationally famous for his Harlem stride piano style — alternating bass notes with the left hand and melody with the right — which laid the groundwork for jazz piano.
BB's Stage Door Canteen was designed to showcase wartime music and dance, but Waller began playing in clubs much earlier, when he was a teenager. Over the course of his lifetime, Waller published more than 400 original songs, and this show's stellar cast of singers presents Waller's incredible range. Not all of the more than two dozen songs were written by Waller, including Don Raye and Hughie Prince's "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," but all were from the 1920s through 1940s. Waller frequently collaborated with lyricist Andy Razaf, who penned "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Honeysuckle Rose."
It is delicious fun to watch the Ain't Misbehavin' women outfitted in strappy shoes and colorful, sassy, satin dresses adorned with rhinestones and the show's debonair gentlemen in striped, three-piece suits and homburg hats, jiving with the band and singing clever lyrics such as "Lookin' good but feeling bad from grievin' over you." Sensual dancing, choreographed by Heidi Malnar, accentuates Waller's swinging style. The women performed a naughty number explaining how they won and keep their men in the song "Find Out What They Like (and How They Like It)."
Jarrell Hamilton, who appeared earlier this year in Jelly's Last Jam at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, is a tremendous entertainer, intensely belting out songs while also being light on her feet. Erica Fox croons in the style of the era's romantic leads on "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling," and Lawrence J. Weber Jr. almost channels Waller with his deep voice bellowing "Your Feet's Too Big."
In the second half of the show, a band with bass, drums, trumpet, trombone and reeds led by pianist Harry Mayronne joins the singers center stage, recalling Waller and his Rhythm's six-piece band.
For an evening of glamorous nostalgia and humor, Ain't Misbehavin' is a good bet.