As Stages St. Louis officially opened its 2012 season on Wednesday night, executive producer Jack Lane greeted theatergoers in the lobby, his smile as warm and his manner as engaging as always. But you only had to glance at his lapel to know how eager he feels to get to New York.
Lane is one of the producers of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a play up for nine Tony awards. Like other nominees around the country, this week he wears a little button decorated with the masks of comedy and tragedy, symbol of the prestigious nomination.
Of course Lane will be in New York for the ceremony, which will air live at 7 p.m. Sunday on CBS. But on Wednesday, he was happy just to enjoy the show that won the Tony Award for best musical in 1978, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” So, it seemed, was everybody in the house.
With Michael Hamilton’s snappy direction and Peggy Taphorn’s sizzling choreography, this salute to the music of composer Thomas “Fats” Waller takes us to Harlem in its glamorous, troubled heyday. Studded with memorable songs from 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, Waller’s music evokes a complicated world, not a simpler one — but a world of immense energy and style.
A true musical revue, the show includes maybe a dozen spoken sentences, tops. That’s fine. The outstanding performers and the hot onstage band, led by Adaron “Pops” Jackson, tell us plenty about Waller and his times without dialogue.
Eric LaJuan Summers, who can turn a sip of coffee into a dance move, slithers through “The Viper’s Drag” in seductive style, while Willena Vaughn’s reedy voice shimmers in numbers as different as the comical wartime promise of “Cash For Your Trash” and the touching plaint of a neglected woman, “Mean To Me.”
Vaughn and Raena White team up for the bawdy duet of two shrewd women, “Find Out What They Like.” Wendy Lynette Fox delicately delineates a much more sedate character in one of Waller’s biggest hits, “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” and Dwelvan David sails through one of Waller’s many comedy songs, “Your Feet’s Too Big,” in generous, good-humored style.
Both acts show off the whole company in spirited finales, “The Joint Is Jumpin’” for Act I and a medley of songs by other composers that were Waller hits in Act II. They also meld beautifully in “Black and Blue,” a song that explicitly addresses the issues of racism that Waller and his colleagues faced all their lives.
The show’s period style is underlined by James Wolk’s set, all sleek arcs and shining colors lit by Matthew McCarthy, and Lou Bird’s smart costumes.
Decked out in glittering frocks and loads of jewelry, all three women look terrific. But they play costumes for laughs, too. White, for example, sings “When the Nylons Bloom Again” in an operatic cloak and a corsage she seems to have borrowed from the winner at Pimlico. The constant jokes remind us what it takes to get through life when it’s rough – as it often must have been for Waller and other men and women of his era.
Who Stages St. Louis • When Through July 1 • Where Robert G. Reim Theatre, Kirkwood Community Center, 111 South Geyer Road • How much $15-$55 • More info 314-821-2407; stagesstlouis.org