A passage in Fats Waller, the biography written by Waller's son Maurice and author Anthony Calabrese, recounts the time a trio of gunmen spirited the jazz piano titan away after a concert, only to deliver him to a birthday party for no less than the equally iconic Al Capone. Al quietly reassured a terrified Waller he wasn't going to die-seems the man of the hour only wanted to ratchet up the bash with a tinkle or two on the ivories, and he needed some expert help. Three days later, a drunk and exhausted Waller emerged from the venue and reassumed the cudgel that would carry him into music history.
If you see The San Diego Repertory Theatre's Ain't Misbehavin': The Fats Waller Musical Show, you may want to keep that little story in mind. In fact, it's a good idea to take in the book as a study guide before you head to the show. That's one of the only ways you'll gain any insight into Thomas Wright Waller, into his lofty place in American jazz and, above all, into the Rep's 32nd season opener. The piece has its merits as a revue, chiefly because music director JMichael has painstakingly tricked out Waller's club-tinged tunes to concert conditions. The problem is that creators Murray Horowitz and Richard Maltby Jr. assume Waller and his jazz are alive and well, and they've chosen to craft his musical legacy without crafting him.
The Capone fable is just the tip of Waller's anecdotal litany, peppered with lore about his unflinchingly merry demeanor, his wholesale womanizing, his legendary drinking (he used to line up shots on his piano), his mastery of the stride genre, his pro-American military stance during World War II, the organ lessons he gave Count Basie and the 10,000-person showing at his funeral in 1943 (he died of pneumonia at age 39). The tales had their genesis along Manhattan's roily Lenox Avenue, Ground Zero to the explosive Harlem Renaissance and site of Fats' customary venues (Robin Roberts' set has a nice post-deco feel, although he needs to lose the clumsy 'Ain't Misbehavin'' sign above it). The show's title, in fact, is also the name of one of the songs from Waller's Hot Chocolates, a Broadway hit he wrote when he was 25.
But as you watch numbers like the quirky 'Your Feet's Too Big,' 'The Viper's Drag'-a terrific interpretive piece extolling the virtues of controlled substances-and the melancholy anti-racism 'Black and Blue,' you're reminded that the lack of personal detail renders the portrayal of Fats' legacy nearly ineffectual. Cast members John Steven Crowley, Lisa and Valerie Payton, Austene Van, TC Carson and Robert Barry Fleming turn some decent vocals and some good intra-song character relationships in the second act; and like I said, you can always bone up on Fats and his people before you go. The bottom line, of course, is that you shouldn't have to.
This review is based on the matinée performance of Sept. 23. Ain't Misbehavin': The Fats Waller Musical Show runs through Oct. 14 at The Lyceum mainstage, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown. $28-$51. 619-544-1000 or www.sandiegorep.com.
No sooner had I shaken the hand of famed mime Marcel Marceau than a fellow theater student did me one better. Marceau had just finished a turn at a University of Toledo student convocation-and instead of helping me tear down the set like she was supposed to, the little skank pulled a fast one and ran away with Marceau's troupe! Sandy called from Iowa five days later trying to score bus money, and the school's theater department was all over the idea amid anticipation of the tales she had to tell. Marceau, Sandy said, was a total prince, adding that she'd learned more about stage movement from him in those five days than she'd ever pick up in a thousand university courses.
Sandy doubtless marked Marceau's death at 84 on Saturday, Sept. 22, with something cool. After her adventure, she was hopelessly infatuated with Bip, Marceau's signature character, who sported a dowdy top hat, a milk-white face and a lifetime of comedies and tragedies to share. Marceau often credited the idea for Bip to Charlie Chaplin and other silent-film greats. And for better or worse, Michael Jackson regarded Marceau as the inspiration for his fabled moonwalk (the two even met once).
Contrary to a stupid folk-tale belief in some quarters, Marceau could speak; in fact, his English was quite excellent. Sandy, in fact, said he kept calling her his 'partner' and complimenting her on her killer smile. He reportedly gave her a big hug and kiss as she boarded the bus for home-with his passing, she surely stroked her cheek at the memory as the world bids Godspeed to an incomparable artist and at least one little skank's best friend.