He was a composer, singer and comedic entertainer, and his Harlem-stride style laid the groundwork for modern jazz piano.
But Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller is little known to younger generations.
“I have to admit that I wasn’t familiar with Fats Waller’s music before we started rehearsals for this show,” says Ahmad Harris, who as Ken channels Waller in New Venture Theatre’s production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
The musical takes its title from what’s perhaps Waller’s best-known song. The show opens Friday in Independence Park Theatre.
“It’s a revue of Fats Waller’s music, but it’s more than that,” says Greg Williams Jr., New Venture’s founder and artistic director. “This is a full musical celebration of his style with singing and dancing.”
Harris doesn’t have to pretend to play stride piano, but he does have to project the spirit of Waller, a big responsibility for an actor who previously knew little about the musician who changed jazz.
“I didn’t realize he achieved all that he did,” Harris says. “I watched YouTube videos of him and picked up his style. He wasn’t arrogant, but he carried himself like royalty.”
And along the way, Waller composed a repertoire that includes “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Jitterbug Waltz,” “Black and Blue” and, of course, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
For the show, Williams is transforming the Independence Park Theatre stage into a club reminiscent of the Cotton Club and Savoy Ballroom, where actors will dance on top of the bar.
“We’ll also have some audience participation,” Williams says. “It’s a show where you learn about an era in jazz and history, and everyone has a good time.”
And the nine-piece jazz band, which will be elevated over the on-stage bar, will make sure of that.
“This will be the biggest band I’ve ever worked with,” Williams says. “I’m putting them on stage to make them part of the musical.”
Williams hired Amy Hill Garner, of New York, to choreograph this nonstop show.
“She’d just finished choreographing the off-Broadway show ‘The Invisible Thread’ and was talking about how she wanted to come South one day,” Williams says. “I said, ‘How about now?’ So, she came, and I have to say that she’s turned our actors into dancers — real dancers.”
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” debuted on Broadway in 1978, paying tribute not only to Waller, but the black musicians of the 1920s and 1930s who were part of the Harlem Renaissance. The cast of five tells this story through 28 songs, each taking on the persona of a musician from that period.
But, like Waller, some of the musicians are unfamiliar to younger actors.
“We have names, but Greg gave us specific people to channel,” says Christian Jones, whose character is called Andre. “He gave me Cab Calloway, and I knew him only from ‘The Blues Brothers’ movie.”
Calloway was a singer and band leader whose jazz orchestra was a regular in Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club. One of his best known songs is “Minnie the Moocher.”
“I watched videos on him on YouTube and studied his style,” Jones says. “And I learned that Cab Calloway was cool. I mean, he had a really cool style.”
Fellow cast member April Louise, who plays Amelia, is channeling Florence Mills, a cabaret singer, dancer and comedian known as the “Queen of Happiness.” She headlined in theaters and was memorialized by Waller after her death in his song, “Bye Bye Florence.” Duke Ellington also memorialized her in his composition “Black Beauty.”
“She’s sassy and bubbly,” Louise says. “She’s always trying to snatch the spotlight. She takes love wherever she can find it.”