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Posts Tagged ‘Fats Waller’

I hadn’t got to London when this first hit the West End in 1979, but I did get to see it at the Tricycle Theatre in 1995, on it’s way to a West End revival. It’s a surprise we’ve had to wait 24 years for this second revival, at Southwark Playhouse.

It’s a revue subtitled ‘The Fats Waller Musical’, conceived by Richard Maltby Jr, which celebrates black American jazz performers of the 20’s and 30’s, and Waller in particular, taking its title from one of his songs. There’s no story as such, just a feast of song and dance, most of the songs mini-stories in themselves. I was surprised at how many of them were familiar to me, thirty packed into ninety frenetic minutes.

Designer takis has turned Southwark Playhouse into a period club, with a glittering gold multi-level bandstand (no room for the drummer, who’s relegated offstage!) and a shiny gold dance-floor. Tyrone Huntley’s direction and Oti Mabuse’s choreography make great use of the space, though the use of the entrances brought sightline issues. Mark Dickman’s arrangements make it sound much more than a five-piece band, who play very well. Sadly, the Southwark sound gremlins were at it again, and we missed too many lyrics.

Overall, despite a talented, hard-working cast – Adrian Hansel, Renee Lamb, Carly Mercedes Dyer, Landi Oshinowo & Wayne Robinson – it didn’t fully take off for me, but given the enthusiasm of the rest of the audience, I put this down to our front row seats and associated sound issues, though I did wonder if the space was too small for it to breathe fully.

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There are some great ingredients to this show – Fats Waller’s music, a fine band, excellent vocalists and some brilliant tap dancing – but the problem with this homage to Waller is that it doesn’t know what it is.

There’s an MC, some of whose contributions are biographical, some rather clumsy and some downright baffling. There isn’t enough biographical material to make it a musical biography, so the morsels just leave you wanting more. The tap dancing of Michela Marino Lerman and Joseph Wiggan is terrific, but I’m not sure why it’s in the show (apart from the fact the producer is connected with the American Tap Dance Foundation and one of the dancers co-conceived the show!). The music is superb, with the vocals of Lillias White particularly stunning, but she only has four songs.

There’s much to enjoy, but it doesn’t really hang together; it’s a bit of a rag-bag. The stage was too small for the show and when all eleven performers were on it, boy was it cramped. With only 80 minutes playing time, the interval was a bit pointless (except to increase bar sales) and interrupted the flow of the piece. To be honest I’d have preferred either a concert or a meatier biographical show. When they ended with Ain’t Misbehavin’, it served to remind me of that earlier show and what this could have been.

Suspend disbelief and just go for some great music and terrific tap dancing.

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