Will the real Thomas “Fats” Waller stand up? There is Waller the unparalleled stride pianist, the most virtuosic, innovative and swinging musical player of that genre who could make the dullest tune something special; Waller the prolific composer of Broadway shows and hundreds of standards, known and unknown, since he often sold song rights outright figuring he could always write something better to put his own name on; a singer extraordinaire of both his own material and anyone else’s that record companies wanted to popularize; bandleader, radio personality and movie star and joyous raconteur whose shifty eyebrows, broad smile and easygoing persona epitomized the devil-may-care ethos of the Harlem Renaissance. Since 1978, however, Waller is best remembered for a Broadway revue of his music that was put together thirty-five years after his death and named after one of his most popular standards, “Ain’t Misbehavin’. ” The good news is that this musical, which has never gone out of style in thirty years, has ensured that Waller has endured as a pop-culture icon after a period of neglect, but the bad news is that it is a Waller filtered through the later vision of others that reflects our own era as much as his own. As much fun as the show always is, it remains a frustration that Waller’s own shows are so rarely revived and it would seem a natural for any number of area companies to rectify this, but for the moment, Goodman Theatre has been thrust in the position of presenting “Misbehavin’,” originally scheduled for its small stage over the spring, to its large stage over the summer since its would be big world premiere musical fell through. Thus, if you can get over the wasteful mindset that this is an extravagant and expensive production of a show that works just fine with few resources during a recession, with its nine-piece onstage band of first-class area players and five powerhouse singers, this is as solid a cast as is likely to be assembled these days. Director Chuck Smith has followed the standard 1970s convention of having three large ladies and two thin guys, though the reality is that the large Waller (at 5’ 11” and 285 pounds, they didn’t call him “Fats” for nothing) was always surrounded by tall, thin and gorgeous ladies more of the Lena Horne type than the Nell Carter variety. (Dennis Polkow)
At Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, (312)443-3800. Thu 7:30pm/Fri-Sat 8pm/Sun 2pm & 7:30pm. Through August 3.