Bumptious Fats Waller Revue Carries A Big Shtick

Theater review "Ain't Misbehavin'." Directed by A. Curtis Farrow. Tuesdays-Sundays through June 29 at Jazz Alley. 206-441-9729.

No one ever accused "Ain't Misbehavin"' of timidity.

Pouring on 30 tunes penned by the exuberant pianist and composer, Thomas "Fats" Waller, the long-running Broadway revue was concocted by Richard Maltby, Jr. as a rave-up, a party, a seance to revive the rollicking spirit of Harlem in its Cotton Club-era glory.

Because such perennial Waller songs as "Honeysuckle Rose," "This Joint is Jumpin' " and "Feeling I'm Falling" are so infectious, so familiar and give off such feel-good vibes, "Ain't Misbehavin' " gets revived often - most recently in Seattle at the Paramount Theatre, with the Pointer Sisters.

But you may never find a production as participatory, as broad and bawdy, as energetically in your face, as the one now at Jazz Alley.

The five-member East Coast touring cast is led by supple-voiced singer Vivian Jett, who took over a role in show's Broadway run back in 1980.

Jett and her cohorts attack this material with both barrels blazing. On the narrow Jazz Alley stage, with one (erratic) spotlight, and a single piano for back-up (well-played by Seattle's Dehner Franks), they sing, they stomp, they shout, sweat, shimmy, mug, and bump-and-grind. And as if that weren't sufficient, they occasionally pull unsuspecting patrons into the act. (If chosen, be prepared for some lusty antics.)

To watch Jett jiggle her Dolly Parton-esque cleavage, and hefty Judi Edwards-Dukharran fan herself with her skirt while propping her foot on a table, is to know burlesque lives. The men on hand, A. Curtis Farrow (who also choreographed and directed) and Waller look-alike Marc Savant, come on a touch smoother. But they do their share of turbo-jiving too.

All this, and the gawky slapstick of Elaine Lloyd, which will either delight you, as it did many at Jazz Alley last night, or leave you longing, like me, to ratchet down the jive level and get more of Fats' sly suavity from the music.

This hard-working troupe has just played a string of one-nighters from Florence, Ore., to Elma, in Grays Harbor County, and they seem willing to do just about anything to keep the joint jumping. But their shtick can feel forced, and slip beyond lusty into crude. And when not strutting her stuff a la Mae West, Jett looks almost bored.

Though, man, can she sing. Jett injects "Feeling I'm Falling" with a surprisingly twangy, Patsy Cline feeling. Growling a bluesy "It Ain't Right," she stretches the word "right" into a six-syllable demand.

The ingratiating Farrow displays his big, warm voice to advantage on "Your Feets Too Big" (sung to some good sport plucked from the crowd), while Savant vamps the reefer madness ode, "The Viper Song."

Edwards-Dukharran and Lloyd both have strong pipes too, but they overburden "Mean to Me" and "Keepin' Out of Mischief" with excess gimmickry. It's a bit of a relief when the whole ensemble finally slows down for a heartfelt ballad: "Black and Blue," which expresses the sorrow and oppression that were the flipside of Waller's goodtimes Harlem idyll.