When Thomas “Fats” Waller played piano and sang, life was a party. A large man with a big personality, he was known as much for making people laugh as for his extraordinary skill at a jumping style of piano playing known as stride.
The music that Waller (1904-43) wrote or reinterpreted remains popular among theater fans due in large part to the revue “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which won the 1978 best-musical Tony Award as it set toes tapping anew to such songs as “T Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Your Feet’s Too Big.”
If you’ve been thinking that it’s about time “The Joint Is Jumpin’ ” again, here’s your chance. Original cast member Ken Page has overseen a terrific staging for McCoy Rigby Entertainment and La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, where the cast includes Frenchie Davis, whom you might recognize from “American Idol” or “The Voice,” filling the role originated by the singular Nell Carter.
Step through the auditorium doors and you’re whisked to the sort of between-World-Wars nightclub in which Waller might have played. Set designer Stephen Gifford throws in some Art Deco embellishments and places an upright piano at the ready. Lighting designer Steven Young keeps the atmosphere cozily dim, with splashes of color for zest and brighter beams to electrify the Easter egg hues of Shon LeBlanc’s costumes.
Waller looks down from a mosaic of photographs that capture him in action, flashing big smiles. He is the first musician we hear, via recording, introducing himself as “my mother’s 285 pounds of jam jive” and jauntily launching the title song.
The spirit of the original staging is very much alive here, with each of the five performers establishing a distinct personality that also reflects an aspect of Waller’s. The performers’ talents line up with those of the actors who so memorably popularized this show.
Boise Holmes is Page’s counterpart, the comic tone-setter with a deep, luxurious voice. Like Charlayne Woodard, Natalie Wachen is a squeaky-voiced ingénue and high-energy imp. Paralleling André De Shields, Thomas Hobson playfully portrays a smooth-voiced, slinky moving Lothario. Like Armelia McQueen, Amber Liekhus, with a bit of opera-like vibrato in her voice, is at once regal and affectionate. And Davis, in the Carter role, deploys a pinched, tightly focused sound and no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners personality.
Extraordinary individually, the performers approach the divine when clustered in tight harmonies. As conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz, the show wonderfully varies mood and sound as it progresses through group numbers and solos that highlight Waller’s diverse catalog of melodies that are sometimes invigoratingly herky-jerky, other times seductively sinuous.
Musical director Lanny Hartley occupies the Waller seat of honor at the piano, and six instrumentalists occupy a bandstand that rolls out when festivities are running particularly high.
There is no livelier place to be when these singers and musicians attract a police siren to their “Jumpin’ ” joint or peacock about while “Lounging at the Waldorf.”
Yet for all of its joyousness, Waller’s music is also infused with the reverse. The excessive brightness of his comedy, performed in the era of segregation enforced by Jim Crow laws, could be read as a pressure release or form of gallows humor.
The revue turns emotional when the all-black cast pauses, stock-still, to sing “Black and Blue,” in which Andy Razaf’s lyric poses the devastating double-entendre, “What did I do to be so black and blue?” The melody, which Waller co-wrote with Harry Brooks, is gorgeous yet also throbs with pain, a poignant evocation of life in an America still striving to live up to its potential.
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‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ ’
Where: La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends Oct. 8.
Running time: 2 hours