It’s a celebration of the music and life of Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller, the king of stride piano, which features almost no stride piano. Instead, a five-piece band, three singers, two tap dancers and a so-called psychic, collaborate with humour and finesse to reinvent Waller’s eternal, iconic songwriting (including “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Honeysuckle Rose”). The result is a tight, ambitious jazz gig, plus loads of fun extras.
The show owes less to the music of the 1930s and more to modern ensemble funk, but one of the defining aspects of the music is how insanely eclectic it all is. Every song features wild, abrupt changes: perhaps between a loungey shuffle and a chaotic, dissonant two-step; or a lighter-than-air tenor falsetto ripped to shreds by a high-speed full ensemble Latin beat. In the moment, the effect is thrilling and intoxicating. As the two hours go on, you come to realise the sheer impact Waller’s music has had, and how it has split off and diversified so many ways over the last century.
Tony Award-winner Lillias White brings star quality and no-holds barred vocals, while master of ceremonies “Sammy Slyde” (Desiree Burch) leads the audience in a seance to bring Waller’s spirit to the theatre, and encourages them to spend generously at the bar so they can raise the rent money and avoid eviction. At times, these Cabaret-esque extras may come across as afterthoughts, although they go some way to introducing and contextualising the man and his music.
The tap dancing, choreographed and led by Michaela Marino Lerman, is breathtaking, and takes on a whole new level in the intimate setting of the studio space. She co-created the show with Michael Mwenso, musical director extraordinaire, who along with Mathis Picard on piano form the backbone to an extraordinary evening of music. Does it raise Fats Waller from the dead? Purists will give a resounding no. But this unique evening of music and history is worth it anyway.