Original cast re-creates `Ain't Misbehavin''. Waller saga is durable in Broadway revival

Ain't Misbehavin' Revue with music by Fats Waller and others. Conceived and directed by Richard Maltby Jr. Musical director/pianist: Luther Henderson. Musical staging: Arthur Faria. Stars: Nell Carter, Andre De Shields, Armelia McQueen, Ken Page, and Charlaine Woodard. The Tony Award-winning musical ``Ain't Misbehavin''' - a celebration of the career of Fats Waller - is back on at the Ambassador Theatre for an unusual 10th anniversary run: All the cast members and the production team are the same as in the original show.

The show itself hasn't been changed much. (One new song, ``This Is So Nice, It Must Be Illegal,'' was added for Nell Carter.) But the times have changed.

Jokes, mugging seem dated

Though Fats Waller's music and the songs he helped make famous from the late '20s through the early '40s are as charming, funny, and durable as ever, the 10 years that have elapsed since the show premi`ered have made the ``fat'' jokes, some of the exaggerated mugging, and even ``The Viper's Drag'' (``The Reefer Song'') seem a little dated. At one point in this song on opening night, for example, Andre De Shields offered the ``reefer'' to someone in the audience, then retracted it with the late '80s slogan, ``Just say no!''

Not only have the times changed, but so has Miss Carter, whose performance in ``Ain't Misbehavin''' won her the 1978 Tony Award for best featured actress in a musical. She's unquestionably a talented comedienne, with superb timing, as well as an excellent dancer and singer. But her opening-night performance was largely an exercise in frustration.

A self-parody on opening night

On opening night, Miss Carter seemed a parody of herself. (Could it be too many years on the TV sitcom ``Gimme a Break''?) With a few exceptions - notably her sassy duet with the other rotund lady in the cast, Armelia McQueen, on Waller's ``Find Out What They Like'' - she was so busy hamming and posturing that key lyrics got lost. In addition, her voice sounded small and pinched. Too bad, because Carter has a fine voice and a wonderful presence on stage, and she moves with style and grace. One hopes that, as the show progresses, she'll loosen up and show her real stuff.

The other members of the cast are, for the most part, in fine fettle, especially Ken Page, who at times bears a striking resemblance to Fats Waller. He does a superb job on the fiendishly rude and funny Waller hit ``Your Feet's Too Big'' - in fact, it's Page and musical director/pianist Luther Henderson who give the show most of its Waller flavor.

Henderson is a remarkably sensitive and versatile pianist, and his arrangements for the on-stage band are effective and appropriate. His presence on stage, seated at an ornate old upright, once again adds a nice touch.

Charlaine Woodard, the third female member of the cast, is a good comedienne who makes the most of her gangly limbs, but her singing was often off pitch at the performance I saw. However, she and Andre De Shields make spiffy dance partners on ``How Ya Baby?'' and the medley of Waller hits in the second act.

Other highlights of the show are the humorous, revolting ``Fat and Greasy,'' sung with swaggering abandon by DeShields and Page; a stirring, hymnlike version of Waller's ``Black and Blue,'' sung by the entire cast (vocal arrangement by William Elliot); and the funny but chillingly effective rendition of ``The Viper's Drag'' by De Shields.

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