Still Behavin' After All These Years

Curtis Farrow's been a part of the Fats Waller revue for two decades.

It's hard to believe that the Tony-winning Fats Waller musical revue Ain't Misbehavin' is almost 30 years old, with its original Broadway run premiering in 1978. And it's hard to believe how long actor-producer Curtis Farrow has been involved with the show, after seeing that original run back when he was 21. "While I was watching the performance of [Broadway vet] Ken Page, I couldn't help thinking, 'You know what? That's my role.'" A few years later it was his role, in the first of several touring productions that he's performed in and produced over the past 21 years. But while he's intimately familiar with the show, he's sometimes a little spotty about where exactly he's performing. "We're in, uh...oh God. Florida? Largo. Yeah. Largo," he says, when we spoke on the phone recently. This confusion is understandable once he outlines his tour schedule—from Florida to Seattle to the East Coast then back again to Florida, all in just the next few weeks. Even a cheerful vagabond like Waller himself, who crisscrossed the country several times (playing here in 1940), would think twice about such a tour. The reason for the erratic schedule, according to Farrow, is one word: Disney. You might not think there's any real competition between a cabaret-sized jazz revue and a touring production of The Lion King, but that's partly because Seattle audiences have grown used to a theater scene with national tours at the 5th Avenue and the Paramount, homegrown musicals at the Village, and even occasional small-cast musicals at our mainstage theaters (including the Rep's Back Home Again—is it just me, or is John Denver what your parents bought you if they didn't know what music you liked?). But for less theater-rich communities, the imprint of the Mouse is large indeed. "When they bus into town, nobody has a chance," Farrow says. "They're everywhere, on radio, television—they just own the market. We've learned to avoid them whenever possible." Farrow works as a freelance director and producer on a wide variety of musicals and revues, spending about half his time on the road and the rest in New York City. He conceived this current touring production of Ain't Misbehavin' when he was in Seattle nine years ago, touring the Duke Ellington revue Sophisticated Ladies. He and Jazz Alley owner Jon Dimitriou talked about what sort of Broadway show might fit the club's tiny stage and intimate atmosphere, and the pair settled on this show largely because, unlike most other musicals, it ignores the fourth wall and plays straight out to the audience. (It's always seemed an unlikely show for a big venue anyway; when I saw the Pointer Sisters' national tour several years back at the Paramount, it was overmiked, overproduced, and a couple of the performances were positively frantic.) Waller's popular appeal has led some jazz critics, including those featured in Ken Burns' recent PBS series, to dismiss him as a chirpy minor talent, despite such mournful masterpieces as Mean to Me and the devastating Black and Blue. They also ignore his mastery of stride piano, an extraordinarily difficult technique where the left hand plays alternating pulses and chords while the right hand plays the melody. Ain't Misbehavin' scores several of the show's songs for singers in similar contrapuntal fashion, which Farrow describes as "the hardest technical challenge I've ever faced as a singer." But the artist who gets the greatest workout in the show is undoubtedly the pianist. "We've gone through about 30 pianists," Farrow recalls. "You have to play stride, which few of them can do. Then you have to play jazz and blues and a Broadway style—their fingers have to be spiritually touched." Fortunately, for this gig they're joined by Dehner Franks, a former UW graduate who's been a featured musician at Jazz Alley several times and now has a career in Las Vegas. "There are certain people that when they touch the keys, they can talk to you," says Farrow, and having been fortunate enough to hear Franks several times, I would agree—he seems to have never met a genre his fingers didn't like. Farrow's fondness for audience participation, which he says is an attempt to involve the spectators in a "noninclusive" fashion, has garnered him a couple of negative reviews. Jazz audiences don't necessarily enjoy being pulled up onstage or encouraged to sing along. While I understand the sentiment, when I saw his production several years back, the cheese factor was low and the Seattle audience seemed giddy with joy to be included, belting along to well-loved songs like "Your Feets Too Big." The current cast, which includes Vivian Jett (from the original Broadway production), Tony nominee Martine Allard, and musical theater vets Ron Lucas and Sandra Bonitto, is certainly a strong ensemble, and the show, a joyous celebration of the man who called himself "my mother's 285 pounds of jam, jive, and everything," is a fun celebration uninfected with Scrooges, angels, or other morally uplifting messages.

 
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