Writers: Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr.
Director: Tyrone Huntley
Reviewer: Michael Gray
“The Fats Waller Musical” trumpet the strapline and the lapel badge. And the spirit of Fats is certainly very much in evidence, his genius and his unique style infusing every number. But is it a musical? Not even a juke-box show, really, since it is just a gloriously extrovert sequence of songs both familiar and rare, expertly put over by five singer/dancers and five musicians.
A cabaret, maybe? A hint of the speakeasy? A revue, perhaps, or an ‘entertainment’, after the fashion of Cowardy Custard or Smoky Joe’s Café. Call it what you like, it is a life-affirming theatrical treat, a tonic for our uncertain times.
It’s forty years now since the show first hit the stage – in Manhattan, where else? At that time most mature people’s record collections included at least one of Waller’s LPs. Now he’s part of history, and it’s a tribute to his longevity that the time seems ripe for this splendid revival, the first in almost 25 years.
Tyrone Huntley’s energetic production is given a classy setting on the Mercury stage, with design by takis: period lampshades, shiny floor, and a lovely art deco grotto – walkdown stairs and lightbulbs galore – for the band. It begins, evocatively, with archive audio, merging seamlessly into the ensemble live on stage. That iconic title song, of course, given a powerful outing by the ensemble.
Impossible to talk of highlights when every number is a polished gem, but particularly impressive are the harmonies in Black and Blue, the sassy vaudeville Find Out What They Like and the duo for the two gentlemen – Adrian Hansel and Wayne Robinson, both accomplished song’n’dance men – Ladies Who Sing With The Band.
The ladies in question are all superb, giving energetic electric performances. Landi Oshinowo shines vocally in Mean To Me and I’ve Got A Feeling I’m Falling, Carly Mercedes Dyer, a life-affirming presence throughout, gives a great Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now, and the excellent Renée Lamb makes the most of her wartime moment in When The Nylons Bloom Again, an unforgettable hymn to hosiery including the deathless lines “Cotton is monotonous to men / Only way to keep affection fresh / Get some mesh for your flesh”.
The choreography, by Strictly’s Oti Mabuse, succeeds in being fresh and exciting while respecting the style of the period. The costumes are a delight, and not only the gorgeous dresses for the dames. The guys have sharp suits, collar and tie, rakish hats; there’s even a bright red buttonhole for Honeysuckle Rose.
Very little in the way of dialogue, apart from cheeky asides. We are given a definition of stride piano, leading into a dazzling Handful of Keys, and a reminder of the difference between the songs plugged on Tin Pan Alley and the authentic Harlem voice, illustrated by Your Feet’s Too Big. There’s a telling contrast, too, between the Waldorf and the dark underworld of The Viper’s Drag.
The audience, and not only the lucky few seated up on the stage, are involved throughout – there’s even a little sing-a-long in Fat and Greasy.
The ‘RCA Victor Band’, as another audio archive clip introduces them as, makes a huge contribution to the success of the evening, in their lilac uniform with hats to match. Notably the jazz trumpet of Elias Jordan Atkinson, and MD Alex Cockle at his travelling upright.
This stylish production, with a truly outstanding company, is something of a feather in the Mercury’s cap, their last Made in Colchester production before the house closes for the Mercury Rising makeover. The show transfers into town next month, catch it while you can.
Runs until 30 March 2019 | Image: Pamela Raith