Harlem Renaissance: a flourishing of African-American art centered on, but not exclusive to, Harlem. Begun in the 1920s, it included writing by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and innovative music by Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, and Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller made the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theatre the hottest spots in town.
Many say it wasn’t a renaissance – a “re-birth” – since it carried on a long tradition of boundary-busting, only this time with more light on it.
Stride piano: offspring of Ragtime. A jazz style where the left hand’s like the rhythm section in a band, while the right hand syncopates and embellishes the melody. The left hand hops up and down; the right jitterbugs sideways, back and forth, across the keys.
“Fats” Waller (1904-1943). See San Diego Musical Theatre’s Ain’t Misbehavin’. Originally conceived by Murray Horowitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., the piece provides few biographical details. Instead, the revue releases the energy of the “renaissance,” the spunk of the “stride” style (among others), and Waller’s irrepressible spirit.
(It’s too bad some details aren’t included, like the time four thugs kidnapped the 285 pound Waller in Chicago, took him to the Hawthorne Inn, and ordered him to perform at gunpoint – for Al Capone’s birthday party, for which Waller, after the initial shock, played three days and nights and earned thousands of dollars).
Like Waller, the Ron Kellum-directed, SDMT production is sassy through and through. As singers belt, probing fingers misbehave and entendre’s double. Some of the lyrics have sexual codes. The impish, five-person cast makes sure that no meanings remain hidden.
As when Ken (Rufus Bonds, Jr.) and Nell (Sylvia MacCalla) sing Waller’s immortal “Honeysuckle Rose,” with a defiant emphasis on syllable number three.
There’s so much talent it’s hard – nay, almost unfair – to single out highlights. That said, David LaMarr’s sly, comic version of “The Viper’s Drag” (aka. “The Reefer Song,” which he sings while smoking a goodly-sized spliff) is a must see/hear. As is the quintet’s “(What Did I Do to Get So) Black and Blue” – doing William Elliott’s gorgeous choral arrangement. And Amber Mercomes’ “Squeeze Me,” and just about every move Jenelle Randall makes, be it singing or dancing (even doing both badly on purpose in the hilarious “Yacht Club Swing”).
The cast performs on a club/bandstand set, the inverted U-shaped arch framed with piano keys (as if ergonomic for a giant). The band - paced by Wreckless Watson on drums and Lanny Hartley’s textbook Stride style, piano accompaniment - keeps the “joint jumpin” all night long.
You feeling down? You feeling blue? SDMT’s got a show for you!