The dazzling Ain't Misbehavin', Newark Performing Arts, photo by Yasmeen Fahmy

Thomas Fats Waller was born in Harlem in 1904. The son of a minister, he turned his abundant talents to songwriting, piano, singing, recording, radio work. He was a great hustler. New York producers must have loved to see him coming to demo a song and take his payment in cash. They said he would sell a song more than once, and other artists had big hits with songs they stole from him. Waller died at 30 of pneumonia on a train in Kansas, and thousands of people lined the streets outside his funeral. 

Forty years ago “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, the Fats Waller revue, rocked Broadway. I jumped at the chance to see it again in a production directed by original cast member André De Shields at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark. In ‘78 four of the five “Ain’t Misbehavin’” actors were so evenly matched that they were pitted against each other for Drama Desk and Tony Awards. The show won for best musical in both.

The new cast stays close to the delicious ‘70s interpretations. A lyric comes with a leer, a wink, and a double meaning. “Jitterbug Waltz” depicts the slow drag of a 1930s dance marathon. “Cash for Your Trash” – an ode to WWII rationing – doubles the tempo in the second half. It’s practically impossible to sing so fast. “The Joint is Jumpin’” scatters the cast as sirens blow. It’s Prohibition. Here come the cops.

The NJPAC production opened tentatively, but locked in early in Act I when the cast forms a chorus line to fervently demonstrate the manual and pedal sides of Waller’s stride piano – witty right hand over punching left. Rheaume Crenshaw sings a very simple “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling.” Borris York draws out every word of “I dreamed about a reefer five feet long . . .” in “TheViper’s Drag,” De Shields’s big number on Broadway. David Samuel self-mocks with “Your Feet’s Too Big” and “Fat and Greasy.” And the entire cast becomes motionless to sing/ask “What did I do to be so black and blue?”

Guest writer Becca Pulliam was a Jazz Producer at WBGO 88.3 in Newark, NJ, for 30 years.

Three dishes at Newark's Marcus B&P

Two blocks from NJPAC, an early 20th century department store is restored and lovely. Enter Hahne & Co. on Broad Street and walk west under the cast-iron-ribbed skylight to Marcus B&P, the new restaurant with the celebrity chef.

Marcus Samuelsson is a great catch for downtown Newark, now rising. After winning a James Beard Award at Aquavit in New York City, he opened Red Rooster in Harlem. At Marcus B&P, B is for  bar with local beers and Newark apple cider on tap, and P is for Provisions. Samuelsson teams Ethiopian cuisine with Swedish. Almost every item on the menu is locally sourced.

Fresh, long-stemmed greens in the appetizing Laurel Garden salad come from AeroFarms, a large-scale indoor grower in Newark. “The dressing has a little kick to it!” said my lunch companions, and they said it again upon tasting the fried chicken and plantain waffles with pickled red cabbage and hot, local Tassot honey. And again for the Dorowat rigatoni. (Dorowat is the classic Ethiopian chicken stew.) The brick-oven pizza is classic, with bubbling crust.

There’s contemporary African-American art on the walls and neo soul music in the air. As our waiter Markus Jackson told us, Marcus B&P stays busy straight through the weekend, beginning Thursday after work.

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