This Joint Is Jumpin'
The Other Palace Studio,
Thursday 6th April 2017
The music of Fats Waller gets a thorough work-out in this 9-piece line-up that celebrates his genius in music, song and dance and sixteen of his most enduring hits. While there is a smidgin of narration from Desiree Burch's ebullient Sammy Slyde, what we are really here for are the musical numbers, and they are splendid. The company, many of them used to playing together either here or in New York, play fast and loose with formality and give us fresh-as-a-daisy, off-the-cuff interpretations that can go any which way, and do. So, this is not really ‘gig theatre'… it's a gig.
And you could hardly wish for a better. The American Lillias White headlines, and bulldozes her way through the passion and wit, sexiness and pain of Waller's creations, scoring a particularly emotive success with her second half reading of a letter, which – far from taking us into a cheering ‘I'm gonna sit right now and write myself a letter' – propels us directly into the heart of the continuing agony of race relations in the States (and so many other places), with a stunning rendition of ‘Black and Blue'. In this, she receives heartfelt and exquisite accompaniment from the French Malagasy pianist, Mathis Picard, a young virtuoso who draws the widest possible range of tonalities from his keys, from the lightest shading, through leapingly confident stride, into symphonic dimensions that never fail to thrill.
The beating heart of the band, however, is American Kyle Poole's sensational drumming, who lays down the rock solid foundation upon which the rest of the music rises, and rises. Add to this British trumpeter Mark Kavuma, who holds the stage like a young Wynton Marsarlis (with whom he has worked), and his long-term collaborator saxophonist Ruben Fox and the bass of Dion Kerr IV, and you have the instrumental row.
Vocals are also furnished by the co-conceiver and MD, Sierra Leonean Michael Mwenso, who practically stopped the show with a Seal-inspired duet with lushly voiced South African Vuyo Sotashe in ‘Sweet Thing': the great thing about great music is that is renews itelf for every generation, and this team surely know how to make that truth stand up.
The last element of the show is the spectacular and impeccable footwork of tap dancers, co-conceiver and choreographer, the American Michela Marino Lerman, and her light-as-a-feather fellow American partner, Joseph Wiggan. It's great that they're doing this in town, while 42nd Street at Drury Lane is showing us the more familiar, very organised and drilled routines we associate with Broadway and Hollywood: this is the other side of the tap dime, and even if you have a broken ankle get along to the studio to see it. They are stupendous.
Another, fascinating, link in the chain is the producer behind this venture, who happens to be right there in ‘the family' of great American popular songwriters, Hoagy B Carmichael. Patrice Miller and Jeremy M Baker's ‘book' may well have scored a great success in the States; over here, it doesn't ‘land' with quite the same impact as, say, Stuart Ross's script for, ‘Forever Plaid', also seen in this venue not so long ago. The tricky thing with having so many people on stage, and the ethos of the show being so improvisational and spontaneous, is that it's very difficult to coordinate the ‘dramatic' impression they make. One cannot help but wonder whether the MC figure rather than involving us in the music, actually places more distance between us and it. Yes, that format can work: just think of ‘Side by Side by Sondheim', where the narrator is really a stand-in for ‘one of us', the audience. But does it really work here, where the narrator is probably the most fictional (ie. least believable) character on stage? No matter. Go for the music, and you'll have a ball.
PS Many of the above are also currently playing a residency on Thursdays at The Prince of Wales in Brixton, doing two late-night sets with a vividly varied repertoire. Catch them there, too!