The Academy Center of the Arts plans to get the joint jumpin’ with “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” the latest production being presented through its Community Through Theater program.
Taking its name from the 1929 jazz song by Fats Waller, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which opens Friday in the Academy’s Warehouse Theatre, celebrates the sound of the Harlem Renaissance and the black musicians who pioneered it.
“It’s a musical revue as opposed to a story, per say,” says Jim Ackley, director of the Community Through Theater program, noting it doesn’t have “a more traditional story with a plot, three acts and all that, and so it appeals to people who are more musically inclined than theater inclined.”
Set in a Harlem district nightclub, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” centers on tunes that were composed or popularized by Waller during his career. Notable numbers featured in the production include “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint is Jumpin’” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
“It takes a journey throughout the years of his writing,” director Joshua Carter says of the music. “He actually started in the 1920s but was really well-known throughout the ’30s.”
Born Thomas Wright Waller, Fats Waller became one of the most popular performers of the era thanks in part to his contributions to the Harlem stride piano style and his appearances on radio and film, most notably the 1943 20th Century Fox production “Stormy Weather,” which was named to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2001.
According to The Baltimore Sun, Waller made nearly 500 recordings and composed about 400 copyrighted songs.
“He takes his music, and he goes straight for the bone and the marrow,” says Carter. “... He goes for the gristle with joy. He goes for the gristle with anger.”
Decades after his premature death in 1943, Waller received a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted into the Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, which is sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center.
“Eons may pass before jazz is graced again with a genius as consistently joyous as Thomas [Fats] Waller,” a Baltimore Sun critic wrote in 1965, when RCA-Victor re-released some of Waller’s recordings from the ’20s and ’30s.
Waller’s star power continues to drive the success of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which won three Tony Awards and three Drama Desk awards in 1978 for its original Broadway run.
“Though almost bereft of dialogue, this musical anthology expands beyond its form to become a resurrection of a great black artist’s soul,” Frank Rich wrote for The New York Times when the show was revived on Broadway in 1988. “Perhaps the key to the musical’s approach ... is its willingness to let Waller speak simply and eloquently for himself, through his art but without show-biz embroidery.”
While the musical revue’s lack of a concrete plot may appeal to some, it proved a bit of a creative challenge for Carter.
“Story to me is king,” he says. “Everything has a context.”
Carter hasn’t added any additional dialogue or explanatory scenes to set the stage for his production. Instead, the director says he set out to create a context for each of the songs, and through that, create an overall story arc.
“I wanted to have a place, a time, a purpose of the music because the music belongs to somebody.”