Theatre 100, Section 002
October 2, 2008
You Can Wear Any Shoes to Swing
I attended the last showing of Murray Horowitz's and Richard Maltby, Jr.'s Ain't Misbehavin: The Fats Waller Musical Show, at the University of Tennessee's Clarence Brown Theatre on September 27, 2008. The Director, actors, Stage Manager, and Costume Designer andwere not affiliated with UT but were provided by their respective professional unions, but the rest of the production was executed by UT Graduate Students as well as other longtime UT Theatre employees and local artists. The production reached fruition through the lively combination of swing music and choreography with a contemporary take on an early 1930's set, and five very talented actors who'svoices harmonized beautifully, and it truly showed the audience how entertainment was done “back-in-the-day:” a sometimes dangerous and illegal mix of gangsters, hot pianos and cold gin with red-hot passion being expressed on the dance floor. It is how the cast and crew presented this show that made it such a success: the show does not focus seriously on the problems surrounding the particularculture that it is recreating, but rather it pays homage in a tongue-and-cheek fashion to the swing movement, Harlem Renaissance, and especially Fats Waller, a piano player who came from nothing to become on of the leading jazz musicians during the Nineteen-Twenties and Thirties.
Ain't Misbehavin' is more of a musical revue of jazzy tunes, many of them Fats Waller's, than a traditional musicalbecause it is not driven by a conflict, so there is no action or character development other than the occasional wardrobe change. The play begins and ends in an almost identical fashion: with flashy dance moves and the usual swing parties and big-band numbers that get the crowd energized. The flow from one musical number to another happens through comical and dramatic
musical exchanges between two character pairs such as in “Find Out What They Like,” or “Your Feet's Too Big,” as well as one-man numbers like “The Viper's Drag/The Reefer Song,” and three or five man numbers like “Spreadin' Rhythm Around.” Although there are some tender moments in numbers like “Black and Blue,” and “Mean to Me,” the partying there remains constant throughout the show. Theactors had no problem breaking the “Fourth Wall” of stage performance and addressing and involving the audience because this wasn't a conventional musical. In “The Viper's Drag/The Reefer Song,” the character Andre even offers an audience member a toke off of what is meant to be a joint. With the help of the band, who played music almost continuously throughout the show, the actors were able tomake the musical revue run very smoothly and quickly. The only information that we the audience know about the characters is what we gain from their appearance, there are five African American actors, two men: one older and the other younger, and three women, one younger, and the other two a bit older but we are not quite sure by how much. We know that these five characters are putting on a show bysinging and dancing to Fats Waller tunes, and I suspect that the characters actually reference Waller in the number “Fat and Greasy” because they are referencing someone not in the show, and in the program it tells of how one of Fats' first nicknames was “Flithy.”
So what was there not to like about this show? Ain't Misbehavin' does not give us enough dramatic substance for us to dissect aconflict or judge the elements of a play that one typically looks at when creating an opinion. It ended almost as quickly as it began because of the fast pace of its dancing, singing, and acting, and this is a bit cliché but time does fly when you're having fun, and Ain't Misbehavin' certainly had me rapping my fingers to the rhythm and tapping my feet. My two favorite areas of the production were...