‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ ’ celebrates jazzy, playful music of Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller

Death — to paraphrase a sonnet — may be not proud.

Doesn’t mean the dead ain’t loud.

What’s that, Fats? This joint is jumpin’? Come in cats an’ check your hats. The piano’s thumpin’, the dancers bumpin’, the roof is rockin’, the neighbor’s knockin’.

Deceased nearly seven decades? Mere details. Bawdy and boisterous, the spry specter of Thomas "Fats" Waller haunts the hills of Spring Mountain Ranch State Park from the swingin’ streets of long-ago Harlem as the Broadway tribute to him, "Ain’t Misbehavin’," opens, presented by Stage Door Entertainment.

"No one’s done it out here, and I thought this was the time," says Terrence Williams, who’s behavin’ as director.

"You might be familiar with some tunes, even if you didn’t know who he was. ‘I Can’t Give you Anything But Love’ appears in ‘Jersey Boys.’ ‘I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,’ a lot of people can sing that but they have no idea it came out of Harlem."

Lonely for lovin’, Fats? Just sit right down and write yourself a letter, make believe it came from her. You’re gonna write words oh so sweet, they’re gonna knock you off your feet. Lotta kisses on the bottom. You’ll be glad you got ’em.

A musical mosaic of 32 tunes composed by or associated with the rotund, rascally jazz pianist, the revue paints a vibrant portrait of early 20th-century Harlem. "The show goes by at a very fast clip," Williams says. "It doesn’t feel like an hour and a half."

Among a score ranging from romantic to lusty to comic to reflective to joyous: "I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling," "It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie," "Spreadin’ Rhythm Around," "Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now," "Fat and Greasy," "Lounging at the Waldorf" and "Your Feet’s Too Big."

Say what, Fats? Her feet’s too big? From ankles up, she sure looks sweet, from there down there’s just too much feet? To put it in your musical vernacular: Her pedal extremities are colossal!

"There has always been good ethnic talent in Las Vegas, they just haven’t been coming into the more mainstream companies, but in the last couple of years they have," says Williams, who assembled an onstage team of four African-Americans and one Hispanic. And a white director.

"When we put audition notices at churches, some people were like, ‘You’re directing this? What do you know about Harlem?’ " says Williams, adding he put no racial limitations on auditions even as he selected an ethnic cast, as per the show’s tradition. "I can respect the opinion, but it’s not about how many facts you can spew out, it’s how much you understand what happened. Everyone in the cast would agree it’s a fair rendition."

Defiant, huh, Fats? Declaring if you take a notion to jump in the ocean, t’aint nobody’s bizness if you do? Go to church on Sunday and cabaret all day Monday? T’aint nobody’s bizness if you do.

Tony-winning "Ain’t Misbehavin’ " debuted in 1978 with a cast including late powerhouse belter Nell Carter, who later claimed TV fame in "Gimme a Break!" Tours and revivals have starred the Pointer Sisters and "American Idol’s" Frenchie Davis and Ruben Studdard.

Amid wandering burrows, jackrabbits and Red Rock backdrop, Williams will attempt to re-create swing-time Harlem with a live seven-piece band onstage, plus a boogie-woogie pianist.

"There’s light audience participation, maybe an audience member appearing onstage," Williams says. "All in the name of having fun like Fats Waller did."

Hey, Fats? Remember singin’ about you and your sweetie in a cozy chair, pickin’ on a wishbone from the Frigidaire? Two sleepy people by dawn’s early light, and too much in love to say good night.

Linear storytelling doesn’t propel "Ain’t Misbehavin’." "Sometimes it’s hard because it’s not like there’s a story line like in a regular musical," says cast member Dominique Stewart. "But it makes sense to do it concertlike. I looked up the old artists and how they did these songs. I learned a lot that I didn’t get from school."

Stop kiddin’, Fats. You’re not really dreamin’ of a reefer 5 feet long, are ya? (It’s a family gig, man.)

" ‘Black and Blue’ caused me a little bit of distress," says cast member Buffie Lucas about the show’s most haunting number. "As a child of the ’60s, you feel a little of it, it’s still relevant. In our group, we talked about it one night. We had very different yet concrete feelings about it."

Feelin’ the pain, Fats, of a world where, ’cause you’re black, folks think you lack. They laugh at you and scorn you, too. What did you do to be so black and blue? How will it end? Ain’t got a friend. Your only sin is your skin. What did you do to be so black and blue?

"We’re trying to get to the soul of these songs," Williams says. "It’s about the rich history people don’t know is there."

Take it on home, Fats:

"I don’t stay out late, don’t care to go. I’m home about 8, just me and my radio. Ain’t misbehavin’. Savin’ my love for you."

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.

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