The songs of Fats Waller have been an essential part of the Great American Songbook for nearly a century. The pianist, composer, and all-around entertainer laid down his first recordings in late 1922, and his first piano roll — placed inside a player piano to echo his boisterous style — was published the following year. Songs he wrote, like the exuberant “The Joint Is Jumpin’” and the enduring “Honeysuckle Rose,” and popularized, like “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” have become part of our vernacular; he knew how to write hits for audiences all over Manhattan, from the suits in Midtown’s Tin Pan Alley to the late-night revelers in Harlem, and around the world.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which is currently playing at Central Square Theater in Cambridge through May 29 before moving to Greater Boston Stage Company in June, re-centers Waller’s work, placing it squarely within early 20th-century Harlem. The production’s milieu is a 1920s Harlem nightclub, complete with red-draped tables serving as the theater’s front rows. The five principals — Lovely Hoffman, Jackson Jirard, Christina Jones, Sheree Marcelle, and Anthony Pires Jr. — inhabit various nightlife denizens over the course of the show, adding swagger to the brawny numbers and giving the slower songs emotional heft.
The Maurice Emmanuel Parent-directed “Ain’t Misbehavin’” manages to feel fast-paced even in its more reflective points, an achievement for a show that packs some 30 compositions into its two-plus hours. (It could have probably delighted Sunday afternoon’s audience for even longer, truth be told.) With co-music director Dan Rodriguez (who shares those duties with David Freeman Coleman) conducting a five-piece combo stationed behind the company, the show is a worthy tribute to Waller’s legacy and to his too-brief historical moment.
What makes “Ain’t Misbehavin’” such a joy is the way it blends Waller’s timeless compositions with biographical information on the man himself. “Handful of Keys,” one of the production’s first-act highlights, shrewdly melds a meta-referential crash course in the stride-piano style that Waller popularized with a joyous song where Jones’s upper register fully blossoms. Jones, a current Boston Conservatory at Berklee student, runs the gamut with her performances, playing the hyper-focused ingenue on the playful “Yacht Club Swing” and showing her keen knowledge of working a crowd on “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.”
Jones’s castmates are all up for the challenge of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” a constantly moving musical revue. Jirard is a dynamo who can transform his lithe movements into explosive moments; he sets the quick pace early with his tap-dancing solo on “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” and he turns the smoky “The Viper’s Drag” into a proto-psychedelic journey in the second act. Marcelle has the vivacity of a vaudeville performer when the mood calls for it, and her higher notes have a pleasantly airy quality. Pires commands the stage every time he’s on it, even when he’s sitting at one of its tables; his broadly comedic take on “Your Feet’s Too Big” brought the house down, and his booming voice often served as the fulcrum for his castmates’ vocal flights. And Hoffman is a wonder, her take on the simply stated “Mean to Me” stopping the show with its wounded weariness.
Before the five-song medley that serves as the show’s finale, the ensemble sits on stools for a gorgeous version of the 1929 composition “Black and Blue.” The spare arrangement allows the lacerating poetry and vocal harmonies to be front and center, and the heartbreak wrought by each lyric hangs in the air. It’s a chance to reflect before the big finish, and it also clues the audience in on the heart beating underneath all of Waller’s music.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” was first produced in 1978, and Waller’s musical career began a half-century prior to that. But all that time has only made the songwriter’s legacy loom larger, with even the most streaming-friendly 2022 pop songs possessing strains of Waller’s DNA. “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a sparkling tribute to the man and his bursting-at-the-seams discography.
AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’: The Fats Waller Musical
Conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz. Directed and choreographed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent. Presented by The Nora at Central Square Theater, The Front Porch Arts Collective, and Greater Boston Stage Company. At Central Square Theater through May 29. Tickets $25-$74. 617-576-9278, centralsquaretheater.org; also at Greater Boston Stage Company, Stoneham, June 9-26. Tickets $20-$67. 781-279-2200, greaterbostonstage.org