Saturday, 8 April 2017

Review This Joint Is Jumpin'

This Joint Is Jumpin'
Music by Fats Waller
Co-Conceived by Michael Mwenso and
Michela Marino Lerman
Book by Jeremy Barker and Patrice Miller

Don't Give Your Right Name, No, No, No

Ah, Fats Waller, TLT has been a fan since seeing the original London productions of Ain't Misbehavin' and Bubbling Brown Sugar back in the day. So your intrepid reviewer was delighted to hear that the son of Hoagy "Rockin' Chair" Carmichael, no less, was producing a show about the great fella at The Other Palace.

The show features both the songs of Waller and the tap dancing skills of Michaela Marino Lerman and Joseph Wiggan and it's all hosted by Sammy Slyde (Desiree Burch), cleverly outfitted in a tribute to Fats's style  (costume: Candace Lawrence).

Although labelled a musical, this is far more a cabaret with the barest outline of Fats Waller's short life. TLT has to say she knows more about Fats's life than the couple of facts thrown out during the show. But the musical arrangements are often fascinating, bringing the versatile Fats Waller tunes (often matched by the exceptional lyrics of Andy Razaf) a modern vibe.

A five-piece band The Shakes is headed by New York-based pianist Mathis Picard, of Franco-Madagascan origin (the latter rather like Razaf) with a fetching trilby and a line in humorous expressions. He's joined by tenor saxophonist Ruben Fox, Mark Kavuma on trumpet, Dion Kerr IV on bass and Kyle Poole on drums, each idividually with an impressive musical CV.

There's enough here musically with vocalists Michael Mwenso, Vuyo Sotasha, often with a R&B spirit,  and Lilias White making her London debut and The Shakes, along with the full volume tap of Lerman and Wiggan to more than hold the attention.

There's the slightest of storylines in a rent party  - Waller himself having played many a time to earn an extra buck at Harlem rent parties, musical entertainments raising rent money.

There's also a nod towards the disregard of copyright since the advent of the internet, but the comparison with the fate of much of Waller's work which often appeared under people's names, is never developed. We hear also of an encounter with gangland (surely not uncommon?) but the mention of a  famous white vocalist is again left hanging in the air except for a general comment about anti-black prejudice.

For our own summary of Thomas "Fats" Waller: Waller was the son of a Harlem minister, and a mother who was an organist, who showed a precocious talent on piano and organ - Bach was a particular favourite -  and was master of stride piano. A man of large appetites for drink, food and sex who often sold the copyright in his songs for very little money, he died at the early age of 39, but not before having also toured England in 1938-1939.

Fats Waller was never a political protestor but pure showman although his songs do have a satirical edge and he was a magnificent performer of his own and other people's songs.

From the moment Michael Mwenso starts off with a bluesy version of Sweet Thing, it's a show that's driven by the music. The London Suite is never explained, but played.

One of the highlights is Broadway veteran Lillias White's rendition of Black and Blue, against the background of the violent, segregated Southern states (not said in the show, but Waller's own family came originally from Virginia).

This is a solid introduction to one of the greats of American music but it feels a bit like a trailer to the main event. It's a piece which perhaps needs a bit more work on the book to make the joins less visible, to drip feed some more information about his life and to integrate the tap dancing into the show, but it's never anything less than engrossing.

We give it an upper range amber light - and the title of this toe-tapping review? The phrase is not in the show where the singers make Fats Waller's songs (in a good way) their own but it's how the Waller's dulcet tones end the recording of rent party song "The Joint Is Jumpin'" with the cops raiding the prohibition era party ends ... "Don't give your right name, no, no, no!"

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