Before Beyoncé ever busted a move, there was Josephine Baker. Before Kanye West ever dropped a beat, there was Duke Ellington. And before Wiz Khalifa topped the charts, Fats Waller was writing some of the most important hit songs of the early 20th century.

Ain’t Misbehavin’

Through Jan. 1, 2012
Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Performance Network Theatre
From $10

Performance Network Theatre’s production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which features more than 30 of Waller’s songs, captures the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, a time when African-American culture was beginning to gain widespread appeal. “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” will be playing at the theater on weekends through January 2012.

“Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” was the 1978 winner of three Tony awards and was conceived by lyricists Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr. as a kind of “love letter” to Waller’s music and the Harlem Renaissance. The musical calls for two male and three female performers who sing and dance through a string of Waller’s best-known numbers, including “A Handful of Keys,” “Jitterbug Waltz” and the beloved title song.

Though the songs in “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” were written over a span of 21 years from 1922 to 1943, James Bowen, who plays one of the two male roles, said PNT’s production is supposed to evoke the late 1930s. Bowen said while the songs aren’t in chronological order, there is a kind of emotional order.

“Some of them he wrote, some of them were simply made famous by him,” Bowen said. “What they have in common is their tremendous musicality and the sometimes surprising emotional depth or surprising comic depth of the lyrics.”

Devoid of any traditional plot, the work is more akin to the musical revues performed at Harlem’s Cotton Club and Apollo Theater during the jazz and swing eras. There is no dialogue, no setting, no character development — Waller’s music is the central “set piece.”

In spite of the work’s unorthodox structure and lack of plot, Bowen said director Tim Rhoze has worked to give PNT’s production some dramatic support by providing each character with a backstory: The characters meet in a “basement club” after performing at another venue. They mingle with other musicians and performers and sing their favorite songs.

In order to make this scenario more believable, Rhoze chose to seat some audience members at tables directly on the stage, recreating the atmosphere of a Harlem nightclub. Bowen said this sort of faithfulness to the time period makes “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” such an engrossing work.

“I don’t want to say it has become a historical piece because that makes it sound dead and dry, which it is not,” Bowen said. “But it’s almost become a historical record of African-American songwriting in that period of time in history.”

The show’s authenticity is heightened by the fact that all the songs were written by an African-American composer. While only a few works of musical theater feature an all-black cast, most of these are attempts by white artists to imitate the music of black America — George and Ira Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” for example.

“Many people, when they see the show, are surprised by how many of the songs they know and even more surprised that they weren’t written by Irving Berlin or the Gershwins or Cole Porter,” Bowen said. “Those are often the people we think with that time period of music.”

While songs like “Honeysuckle Rose” and “ ’Tain’t Nobody’s Business” may sound generations behind the works of contemporary black musical artists, students may be surprised to learn that hits by Rihanna or Jay-Z are rooted in the melodies and syncopations of the swing era. So while our grandparents and great-grandparents may have danced to Waller’s songs, his distinct style still has influence on the music of the 21st century.

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