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Music by Fats Waller; book by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr
Southwark Playhouse, London SE1 until June 1
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Fats Waller (1904-43) was a classically trained African-American musician/songwriter who popularised a singular style of playing know as stride piano. On stage he had a roguish, winning, persona and was a major hit maker of his era. He regularly collaborated successfully with Tin Pan Alley lyricists and was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 20s and 30s. Today he is recognised as one of the great pioneers responsible for bringing jazz into the mainstream.
This show, which was a huge Broadway hit in 1978, is widely accepted as a prototype for the many musical revues which followed (Five Guys Named Moe, Smokey Joe's Café) whereby you take a treasured collection of (mostly) standards and allow them to be star of the show. There is no plot or consistent characters and therefore the burden falls on the singers. This can be a tall order.
Here we have the supremely talented young performer, Tyrone Huntley (Jesus Christ Superstar, Dreamgirls) making his directing debut alongside the musical choreography debut of Oti Mabuse, the hugely popular South African star of TV's Strictly Come Dancing.
Huntley knows how to support performers and he infuses the piece with a satisfying energy. Mabuse clearly throws herself at this with the glee of a kitten confronted with a ball of thread and numbers like 'Off Time' are packed with effortlessly elegant moves. Too often though the overall effect is one of overkill. The pizzazz works sometimes but the piece requires more light and shade. 'Two Sleepy People', perhaps the most languid song ever written, and covered by many, comes across as frantic. Too many of the songs also are truncated and then shoehorned into, my pet hate, The Medley. One can't blame the show for this, of course, but rather Waller for being too prolific.
At its debut this music was still within living memory of audiences but now it is antique and presents more of a challenge for this young creative team because of it. They get the fun and the energy right but the numbers that need real soul too often tip into bland musical theater treatments. Sometimes this is just gilding the lily a little and in 'Mean to Me' or 'I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling' less would have been more. The vocals need to be trusted to do the work more often and when they don't the show dangerously slides into X-Factor territory – all empty emoting. Huntley redeems it all though by keeping it all zipping along.
The talented quintet of Adrian Hansel, Wayne Robinson, Landi Oshinowo, Renée Lamb and Carly Mercedes Dyer all have their strong points which Huntley and Mabuse draw out. Robinson even brings gymnastic grace to 'The Viper's Drag' a witty hymn to a giant reefer and the women vamp it with the best of them in the supremely un-PC 'Find Out What They Want'. When the lights are finally dimmed for a welcome slow number, Dyer give us a killer 'Keepin Out of Mischief Now'. She also dances divinely throughout.
Takis' set, a golden bandstand backed by a tunnel ringed with showbiz lights is suitably glitzy recreation of the Harlem nightclubs of the era. On it sit Musical Director Alex Cockle's 5-piece band who are all top-notch.
For jazz fans this is a welcome reminder of the greatness of Waller and it remains a slickly packaged entertainment which showcases some rising talent both onstage and off.