To define the joyful transcendence of Thomas Wright Waller, affectionately known as Fats, we call on the infinite poetic wisdom of Tennessee Williams. At the end of his play Camino Real, Williams' Don Quixote triumphantly announces, "The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks."
As the puckish court jester of the Harlem Renaissance proclaiming to the universe that his lady love's "feets too big," Waller was indeed an extravagant flower breaking through the obstinate surface of racial prejudice and condescension.
Everything about the 300-pound Waller, who died of pneumonia in 1943 on a cross-country train, was improbable. The supreme hedonist honed his music-making skill playing the organ at his father's church. Oscar Levant called him "the black Horowitz."
This "bubbling bundle of joy," as his contemporaries labeled him, excelled as a stride pianist, singer and composer of 400 songs, almost all about the joys of hard living. Thankfully, his magnificent anarchy endures in his many Hollywood cameos.
Back in 1978, Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr. skillfully arranged a passel of Waller songs into a celebration of the musician's ultra-spirited personality and called it Ain't Misbehavin', after one of Waller's most durable compositions. Wisely, the delicious irony permeating this life-affirming revue is that it is an ode to all forms of naughtiness.
The piece eschews biographical details about the literal Waller. Instead, it lets the songs give testimony to a life wildly led. The original Broadway production created stars like Nell Carter and Ken Page. Director Kent Gash's staging, now at the Cleveland Play House, sagely concentrates on environment over individuals.
The production creates a jive-y purgatory where five divinely debauched performers play out the indulgences that filled Waller's life and ultimately did him in. The evening is an impressionistic swirl of '30s and '40s minutiae: sequined snoods, whirling arms in white gloves and floozies in fox furs performing "The Ladies Who Swing With the Band."
The evening's defining image is Christopher L. Morgan descending from the heavens — shirtless in pinstripe pants, suspenders and derby — moving his body in Fosse-like undulations. With a Sportin' Life leer, Morgan seductively wails an aphrodisiac musical come-on to the pleasures of reefer.
Demonstrating that Waller wasn't completely oblivious to racial disharmony, the company ceases mirth-making to sing a bittersweet lament to being "Black and Blue." In a production that concentrates on verisimilitude rather than fluff, the cast enacts the truth of pimps on the make and sharp mamas out for loot.
The real star of the evening is choreographer Byron Easley who, with endless imagination and variation, keeps things as propulsive as the train on which Waller left this earth.
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