Fats Waller wasn't what one might call a reliable narrator. "I'm home about 8, just me and the radio," the overstuffed piano player growls toward the end of his song "Ain't Misbehavin'." "I've got no place to go," he swears. But this dubious confession to an unnamed girl he's allegedly saving himself for follows a wild, whimsical, heavily percussive instrumental break that sounds like it was written to accompany a drunken stumble from Central Park North all the way up Lenox Avenue to the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Besides, Waller was playing his songs during that period between the world wars when jazz was still new and all the rage and black culture flourished on Manhattan's neon-crowned north side.
There are several plays and musicals that attempt to capture the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance. Ain't Misbehavin', which opens at Hattiloo Theatre this week, is perhaps the best of the lot. Or at least the most fun. It's a simply imagined musical revue for five performers, built around Waller's best-known songs — "Honeysuckle Rose," "Your Feet's Too Big," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," and "T'aint Nobody's Business (If I Do)," to name only a few. Waller was famously affable and able to get his musicians so deep into the good-timing spirit of his songs they could record them in one take. That joy and its accompanying lust for life billows through Ain't Misbehavin' like reefer smoke in a crowded nightclub.
Seating at the Hattiloo doesn't provide a lot of legroom. Thankfully, the center aisle is wide, because this is music that makes you move, whether you want to or not.
Ain't Misbehavin' at the Hattiloo Theatre August 4th-28th. Tickets range from $12 to $28. Call 525-0009 for more information.