There have been many Broadway revues devoted to the work of a single composer, but there's only one "Ain't Misbehavin'" - just as there was only one Fats Waller.
Filled with an elegant, poignant irony, Waller's music was written in a period when show business was still largely segregated. Black entertainers had their own clubs, their own record labels, their own movies. When they appeared on white men's turf, they were expected to play certain roles.
The playfulness in Waller's songs reflects an awareness of these roles, but there's also a sense that he was thumbing his nose at convention. Waller was hardly an agitator. If there's an edge to some of his work, there's a seductive beauty to all of it.
What sets "Ain't Misbehavin'" above similar shows is that it has a real point of view. It is a very conscious retrospective of the styles black performers developed during a certain period, a conscious display of masks. The most impressive moment comes when the clowning stops and the performers stand still and sing "Black and Blue," making us deeply aware of what's going on beneath the masks.
Though 10 years have passed since the show was first done, none of the five performers looks any older. Nor is there any shortage of energy, exuberance or the sensational talent that made the show a hit whether or not people caught its "message."
What does seem lacking this time around is restraint. This time the show seems less an ensemble performance, more like a series of star turns. The mood is so relaxed that when "Black and Blue" begins, it takes the audience a while to realize the song is deadly serious.
When Andre De Shields, always a stylish performer, did his "Viper's Drag" 10 years ago, it was sinuous and sinister. It made you understand why Eve was helpless against the serpent. This time, though the dancing is still impressive, it's more offhanded. Also, when he offers someone in the first row a joint, then teases him, "Just say no," he breaks the mood and cheapens the number. Similarly, in "Jitterbug Waltz," Nell Carter is allowed to continue a sight gag so long she upstages the others in a way that's unfair to the song.
Still, Carter's voice is one of the most amazing instruments to hit Broadway in years. The joyful sounds she makes are absolutely irresistible. Armelia McQueen's kittenish sexiness remains adorable, and the irrepressible Charlaine Woodard fairly explodes with a frenetic, but endearing wildness. Ken Page, aloof and nimble despite his weight, still seems the most elegant embodiment of Waller's spirit.
Arthur Faria's precision choreography gives the show visual flair and distinction, Luther Henderson's arrangements are obviously built not just from his skill but from tremendous love for the material. Even with its lapses, "Ain't Misbehavin'" is, for sheer entertainment, the best value on Broadway.
Under no circumstances do sensible people ever attempt to get away with any of the following dumb things: Looking up an old flame; wearing last year's bathing suit; dropping by the old fraternity house. In the theater, sensible people most especially do not revive 10-year-old musicals with the entire original cast and creative team. That's just begging for trouble.
Well, wouldn't you know, the fools have gone and done it - revived "Ain't Misbehavin'" in an anniversary production that's a line-for-line copy of the original. The one that won every theater award that counted back in 1978, and made a big TV star of Nell Carter.
And wouldn't you know, this foolish idea turns out to work like a charm. Which only goes to show: "one never knows, do one?"
They're going to be quoting that immortal Fats Waller line up and down Broadway, the minute audiences catch on that this revival is no sentimentally shoddy exercise in nostalgia, but a bona-fide recreation of the spirit and the artistry that made the show such a joy the first time around.
More than that, this dazzling new production is also a genuine emotional reunion with the ensemble that gave the show its soul. Aside from billing Carter in the star spot above the title and giving her one new solo (with more than 30 songs on the bill, who would begrudge such a modest addition?), the show has not been bent out of shape to suit her eminence.
Lest we forget, this tribute to Thomas (Fats) Waller and his happy-time music was one of the earliest of those intimate, bookless musicals that we eventually learned to take in stride as a new and streamlined version of the old musical revue. Under Richard Maltby's direction and with Arthur Faria's inspired choreography, the show was assembled originally with scrupulous attention to performance and production style. That was to keep audiences from rioting when they realized they had paid Broadway prices for a show that had no spoken dialog, no storyline, the tiniest of jazz bands, a modest set, no backdrop choruses, and a total cast of five - count 'em, five - performers, plus the musical director on stage at the piano.
As it turned out, people didn't riot (except for excitement) once they heard the music and got a load of the sensational cast.
There was Ken Page: With his hotshot moustache and heroic size, this genial singer played off people's memories of Fats himself. Especially when he got all sassy with Carter on "Honeysuckle Rose."
There was that dynamic belter and hot little strutter, Charlaine Woodard, swinging a mean purse at Andre De Shields in "How Ya Baby," and turning that man's eyes right around in his head.
There was De Shields, in a suit so sharp he could cut his pretty self, doing "The Viper's Drag" with such incredibly sexy lassitude that snakes curled up in their dens would dream of his moves.
There was cuddly Armelia McQueen, all puckered up and shamelessly teasing the spotlight to "Squeeze Me." Which, to, everybody's surprise and delight, it did.
There was Luther Henderson, too - whose arrangements kept Fats' songs honestly uptown, where they were meant to be - dusting off the upright with his red silk hanky so he could show us, in "Handful of Keys," exactly what the Waller stride-piano style was all about.
And, of course, there was Carter, with a voice so big and clear and penetrating it could guide battleships into port.
Carter does her love growl in "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling," all the while looking as adorably naughty as one of those Betty Boop dolls-on-a-stick that you used to win at Coney Island.
Incredible as it sounds, to talk of these performances in the past tense is to talk of them as they play today. Like Randy Barcelo's party-mood costumes, John Lee Beatty's neon-ringed set, and Pat Collins' erotic, after-dark lighting, neither the characterizations nor their execution appears to have changed for this anniversary production. Except, of course, that everybody is older and wiser.
After all, Waller wrote get-down songs for grown-ups who wanted to have fun. People who know how to dress up and party on Saturday night. It's not much that everybody in the show is 10 years older - it's that they've all had 10 years more experience at partying.
''Ain't Misbehavin'" is so torrid that it may be the only place in town where you feel happy to be hot. In their scrupulous re-creation of the Fats Waller show that first electrified Broadway a decade ago, the original cast and creators have conjured the same between-the-wars dream world as before. The stage of the Ambassador Theater turns into a mythic saloon where black jazz bounces against Tin Pan Alley pop, where 125th Street intersects 52d Street, where men coil around women in a plume of reefer smoke. It's always 3 o'clock in the morning. The joint is always jumping. And if there's a smell of summer sweat, it's of the sweetest old-time New York vintage: one part gin, two parts jitterbugging flesh.
The evening takes its spirit, of course, from the larger-than-life Waller - stride pianist, composer, comedian and Harlem legend before and after his death at age 39 in 1943. In ''Ain't Misbehavin','' 30-odd songs that Waller either wrote or popularized are placed in the loving hands of five winning performers and seven swinging on-stage musicians. But the revue's sum exceeds even its parts, though those impressive parts include the singer Nell Carter, the pianist Luther Henderson and numbers like ''I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling'' and '' 'T Ain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do.'' Though almost bereft of dialogue, this musical anthology expands beyond its form to become a resurrection of a great black artist's soul.
Perhaps the key to the musical's approach, as conceived by the director Richard Maltby Jr., is its willingness to let Waller speak simply and eloquently for himself, through his art but without show-biz embroidery. We've all heard ''Honeysuckle Rose'' a million times, yet it still seems a new, hair-raising discovery when Ken Page, the derby-wearing cast member who most resembles Waller, chews humorously over the song's opening lyrics, then flies into both erotic and rhythmic syncopation with the sizzling high-pitched cadences of Ms. Carter. Whether Armelia McQueen is shyly imploring her ''Daddy'' to ''Squeeze me and squeeze me again'' or Ms. Carter is nursing the romantic pains of ''Mean to Me,'' the spotlight remains on the melodies, the words and the plaintive emotions, with the arrangement often reduced to Mr. Henderson's tinkling piano. These melancholy babies come to us without the veil of maudlin tears.
Once the time arrives for the cast and the band to cut loose, Mr. Maltby and the inventive choreographer Arthur Faria keep the feverish outpourings within a similarly cozy, after-hours-club scale. When Andre De Shields and Charlaine Woodard swing their limbs on ''How Ya Baby,'' their elbows and outstretched hands fly at splayed, stylized angles, as if the couple were leaping off a Depression dance hall poster; they are liberated spirits from another time rather than prisoners of latter-day camp. Mr. Page's priceless, seated delivery of the surrealistically comic ''Your Feet's Too Big,'' at once arch and low-down, reminds us that burlesque humor and high-style elegance are not mutually exclusive. With the exception of one jarringly anachronistic new gag in Mr. De Shields's ''Viper's Drag'' - now and before the evening's low ebb - nothing is oversold for cheap effect in ''Ain't Misbehavin'.'' The tone this show set a decade ago has been imitated in many subsequent revues - including at the Manhattan Theater Club, its initial springboard to Broadway -but never remotely matched.
What's even more impressive about the revival is how little it seems like a rehash. One has come to dread these remountings of recent Broadway hits, with or without original personnel: the prevailing, pickled-in-formaldehyde standard is typified by last season's ''Cabaret.'' But, as Fats was fond of asking, one never knows, do one? In ''Ain't Misbehavin','' the original on and off stage artists have returned not only in force but in high gear as well. From the Art Deco sunbursts of John Lee Beatty's set to the literal and musical striding of Mr. Henderson's mobile upright piano, the production looks and sounds as it first did. One can even report that the company's plumper members, so evocative of the outsize Waller person and persona, have diligently refrained from shedding any discernible pounds.
The cast may be a decade older, but you'd never guess so. If Ms. Woodard's rendition of ''Keepin' Out of Mischief Now'' is more touching than in 1978, is it because she has matured or merely because one has too often missed this lovely, underemployed talent during the intervening seasons? Of the others, only Ms. Carter, thanks to network television, has undergone the sea change of stardom, and her new billing, along with an added solo, reflects that elevated status. She deserves it. Ms. Carter's voice is the unexpected instrument it always was, an alternately blaring and muted trumpet, but there's a dark blurriness to her big eyes now, a blues lady smoldering beneath the jazz comedienne. Rather than warp the show with her star presence, Ms. Carter deepens it.
Even so, ''Ain't Misbehavin'" remains an ensemble piece, designed to enfold the audience in its embrace as Fats once did. Nowhere is the communal spirit more evident than late in Act II, when the company suddenly exposes the suffering within the Waller showmanship by harmonizing, in William Elliott's brilliant vocal arrangement, on the searing Andy Razaf lyrics for ''Black and Blue.'' Staring out with ineffable dignity from a row of stools, the singers bring the theater to a hush by quietly floating the incantatory questions ''Why was I born?'' and ''What did I do to be so black and blue?'' into the haunted predawn light.
These questions are something to think about, but not for too long on this occasion. The party soon takes to its feet again, with each performer imitating a different instrument in a jamming jazz band, until finally the entire audience is carried aloft by the roaring wave of ''Honeysuckle Rose.'' Has it really been 10 years since we all last met at ''Ain't Misbehavin'"? When Fats Waller is on Broadway, the night and the world are always young.