Fats Waller

Fats Waller, behavin’ in style

"Ain't Misbehavin'" goes big and brash and rocks the house at Center Stage

Storytelling is at the heart of popular music. When a revue of popular songs is put together it’s already halfway to being a play: not a novel, maybe, but a collection of short stories. Sometimes, as with Dreamgirls, a plot’s concocted to pull the songs together. Sometimes, as with Black and Blue, the terrific 1980s revue of 1930s black American music, the connective tissue is the performers themselves, the forward thrust of the dance and music, and the cultural source, the community, of the songs.

Ain’t Misbehavin’, though it’s smaller and tighter, is much closer in spirit to Black and Blue: a collection of great songs, in great arrangements, delivered by an ensemble of sharp performers and a sizzling band. Premiered in 1978 and covering roughly the same time period as Black and Blue, it wraps itself around the personality and songs of the gregarious pianist, singer, and composer Thomas “Fats” Waller – songs he wrote, or songs by others that he performed and recorded. Sly, genial, and bursting with the wit and energy of one of the most innovative periods in American music, it’s one of the very best revues ever assembled: an effervescent expression of African American spirit, shaded by the harsh realities of a segregated and divisive nation.

Behavin' and otherwise, from left: Charity Angél Dawson, David Jennings, Olivia Phillip, André Ward, Maiesha McQueen, DeMone, Mia Michelle McClain and David St. Louis. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Behavin’ and otherwise, from left: Charity Angél Dawson, David Jennings, Olivia Phillip, André Ward, Maiesha McQueen, DeMone, Mia Michelle McClain and David St. Louis. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Portland Center Stage’s bright and shining new production, which brought down the opening-night house on Friday at the Armory, reveals that it’s also a show of surprising elasticity. Director Chris Coleman, working with scenic designer Tony Cisek and with the permission of co-originator Richard Maltby, Jr., has knocked out the walls and opened the show to the streets, bringing in the heady Uptown of the Harlem Renaissance and the bleaker days of the Depression Thirties to give the songs a deeper visual and impressionistic context. He’s expanded the cast from five to eleven, and created, with Cisek, a whole urban community: apartments, bedrooms, alleys, piano parlors and party rooms, the kitchen at the Waldorf, where black cooks and waitresses serve wealthy white customers, cracking wise along the way. It’s a bit like bringing a little August Wilson atmosphere into the honkytonk, suggesting a web of interwoven stories waiting to be told.

Continues…