Ain't Misbehavin', Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

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The Independent Culture

On paper, it looks fairly insubstantial. Ain't Misbehavin' ("The Fats Waller Musical Show") simply strings together music that was either by Thomas "Fats" Waller or made famous in recordings by him.

On paper, it looks fairly insubstantial. Ain't Misbehavin' ("The Fats Waller Musical Show") simply strings together music that was either by Thomas "Fats" Waller or made famous in recordings by him. There's no book, no plot, no character development, hardly any scenery and few of the elements on which a compelling evening in the theatre usually relies. It's based on the idea of Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr, which was aired at London's Tricycle Theatre in 1995, and which had been a huge Broadway hit in the late 1970s when it ran for 1,604 performances.

It's entirely to the credit of director Philip Wilson and the chemistry between the five actor-singers and the excellent eight-piece band at the Crucible Theatre, as well to Waller's own genius, that each sequence explores its own theme, and each song sets a scene, tells a story, and conveys a mood or emotion. The performers unwrap the characters and attitudes behind the music with perceptiveness and subtlety.

More than 30 musical numbers flow seamlessly together. The set design develops from simple keyboard backdrop to full-band set, and the lighting effects are delicious.

A few pennants flutter over the "Yacht Club Swing" - given a neatly nautical roll by Akiya Henry who, in addition to her own nimble tap dancing in "Off-Time" makes an agile partner to Joel Karie in a spot of athletic jitterbugging. Suits are sharp, frocks are pretty, and even the khaki uniforms have a sort of glamour - at least in Enyonam Gbesemete's smoky-voiced "When the Nylons Bloom Again". Leading the company in "The Viper's Drag/The Reefer Song" Joel Karie prowls round the stage.

The show is beautifully choreographed by Carolene Hinds and the musical director and exuberant pianist David Shrubsole has no difficulty with the Harlem stride style of piano-playing, "the swinging left hand", to which the bassman Will Collier adds his own distinctive touch.

The opening sequence includes the enduring standard "Ain't Misbehavin'", from Waller's own show Hot Chocolates, which also contained the plaintive "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue?", given a terrifically poignant rendition by this company.

It's a shame that a way wasn't found to incorporate "Honey Hush", the number Waller penned after playing the Sheffield Empire. It was this number that inspired his famous comment, "It's 50 per cent inspiration and 50 per cent perspiration." In this case it's 50 per cent vintage Waller and 50 per cent infectious performances.

To 22 January (0114-249 6000)

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