The joint is jumpin’ at Town Hall Arts Center

Fats Waller's music runs like electrical charge through musical revue


At Town Hall Arts Center in Littleton, the six-piece band, led by amazing pianist/music director Donna Debreceni, jumps right into the title song of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” as lights come up and the talented singing/dancing cast of five appears with one of jazz pianist Fats Waller’s best-known songs.

The prolific Waller’s many, many lively, often humorous, songs are part of our national cultural fabric and readers may have the experience we did at looking up a song list — wow! Didn’t realize he wrote that one! The performance is a tribute to the musicians of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s who filled theaters and nightclubs like the Cotton Club and Savoy Ballroom with music during the Harlem Renaissance — music that has mostly stayed in the limelight across the nation.

The show is especially a tribute to the brilliant, funny stride pianist, Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller, who started playing the piano at 6 years old and soon learned to play violin, organ and string bass. He played at the church where his father was a Baptist minister and at 15, was organist at the Lincoln Theatre in Harlem. Director Robert Wells writes that after his mother died, the young man, who chose not to honor his father’s wishes that he follow his footsteps in the church, moved in with the family of pianist Russell B. T. Brooks, who introduced him to the “stride” school of piano jazz.

The set has a bandstand onstage filled by six musicians, tied to the dance floor/performance area in front of it with steps the actors flowed back and forth on … The musical is simply a revue of songs by the versatile composer

Director Bob Wells has cast five strong singer/actors, who can solo or blend voices with one or more of the others — and in a wide range of styles. And the sound of all five combined is especially smooth and fine. Waller is the pioneer of lively stride piano and his ongoing gifts to this country’s jazz repertoire that make almost anyone want to dance. (Some audience members danced out after the performance.)

One could see the top of Debreceni’s blond head bouncing as she delivered on the especially lively songs — which are interspersed with slow, sentimental numbers like “Honeysuckle Rose” …

Leonard E. Barrett Jr. and Mary Louise Lee are skilled, veteran Denver area singers/actors, who have not appeared at Town Hall previously, but worked together especially well. Radjulari is new to the area, but has years of national and international experience as a jazz/soul vocalist and actress — a welcome addition to the lively, local theater community. Randy Chalmers, in his fifth production at Town Hall, is especially known in the area for his charming dancing/singing role as Seaweed J. Stubbs in “Hairspray” and he recently appeared at the Aurora Fox in “Passing Strange.” Krisangela Washington has appeared at Town Hall in “Violet” and “Legally Blonde” and has performed at the Aurora Fox, Denver Center and Arvada Center.

This revue, conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz and originally created and directed by Maltby, won a Tony Award for Best Musical and is just a happy, well-organized doorway to a delightful evening of musical theater.

Barrett’s sassy delivery of “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” and the company’s joyous “The Joint is Jumpin’” contrast with Radjulari and Barrett’s soft “Two Sleepy People” … Barrett’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” had the audience laughing as did Chalmers and Barrett in “Fat and Greasy.”

Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller (1904-1943) was a serious jazz artist, who must have written and/or performed almost constantly — night and day — and unfortunately wore himself out early. Would that we had an even greater body of jazz works to enjoy …


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