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Theater Review: Fats Waller’s undying legacy in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at Civic Theatre of Allentown

Little can describe what it is like to live inside of the catalog of Thomas “Fats” Waller, in all of its jazz-tinged mysticism, today.

Existing with an inescapable stain of feeling dated, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” finds a way to present itself as inexplicably timeless in the Civic Theatre of Allentown production, through March 10 on the Nineteenth Street Theatre main stage.

Each song, as the upbeat and deceivingly solemn revue progresses, mirrors a likeness to what could be heard on modern radio today. Nestled beneath that superficiality, however, lies something much more profound: grief.

Key players throughout the Harlem Jazz Renaissance, such as Fats Waller, are often characterized as lively, larger-than-life, and enriching of Black culture. What is seldom discussed is the deep sadness laced between the notes of Waller’s notorious stride piano; hints of Black struggle occupied the dead air between the sensationalism of Big Band Swing music of the 1920s.

Equal parts celebration and social commentary, director Gabe Moses appears to have understood this marriage of juxtaposition in this invigorating adaptation at Civic Theatre. It is a freshly-painted portrait of Black art, and all of the crevices in between. The Feb. 23 opening night performance was seen for this review.

For a production of its kind to work, specifically as one carried by music and that alone, a director must intentionally assemble an “Avengers”-like cast. “Ain’t Misbehavin’” ain’t a show that allows for passive delight. Instead, a quintet of masterful Black performers are needed to promote the vocal dexterity, humor and high-spirited quietness that these characters possess.

Every performer on the Civic stage: Veronica Cummings, Deborah D’Haiti, Juanita Renay Gray, Keith M. Miller Sr. and Andrew Stewart gives a performance worthy of role origination. Instilled with power, individually as strong as one another, these Black artists shimmer with a coat of perfection. By the time the first act comes to a screeching halt, with a memorable “The Joint Is Jumpin’” finish, you start to notice how gifted the cast really is.

When you take a look at the show’s second act, this is where the genius of Fats Waller levitates. Exchanging showstopper after showstopper, performers expertly leverage their unique approach to give weight to these unshaped characters.

Stewart manifests a beautiful stillness, paired with snakelike and magnetic movement, throughout their rendition of “The Viper’s Drag.”

A sorrowful “Mean to Me,” sung with imminent grace by D’Haiti, follows shortly thereafter.

Offering a change of pace, then, is the humorous “Your Feet’s Too Big” and the arguable fan-favorite “Fat and Greasy.”

Miller Sr. proves a steadiness throughout that lifts the production tenfold.

“Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” and about every song that Gray soared through, is reminiscent of the age where this music was first birthed.

Rounding off the quintet’s solo contributions is none other than Cummings as Armelia. There is a rich tone of emotional urgency in their performance, especially in their lower register, and it rips through your soul in each production number.

What “Ain’t Misbehavin’” tries to say reveals itself during the middle of this marathon of plotless, albeit stunning, vocal arrangements.

“Black and Blue,” a stripped-down ode to Waller’s seeming existence, a harmonic reflection of Black struggle, slows down the spectacle. It serves as a reminder that Black lives still operated under a patriarchal structure and that the Swing Era, as popularized as it was, did not erase that. This, for myself, can be considered the true finale of the production. It is real, it is powerful, it is a testament to now.

Perhaps “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is more than just a revue, more than just a showcase of talent that blows beyond the back wall of Civic’s historic space. It is a mirror.

“Ain’t Misbehavin,’” 7:30 p.m. Feb. 28, March 1, 2, 7, 8, 9; 2 p.m. March 3, 10, Civic Theatre of Allentown, 527 N. 19th St., Allentown. 610-432-8943; https://civictheatre.com/

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY BILL BASTA The cast of “Ain't Misbehavin,'” Civic Theatre of Allentown.