Behind the Curtain: Geva Theatre Center presents ‘Ain’t Misbehavin,’ the Fats Waller Musical

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Geva Theatre Center’s first show of the year, the beloved jazz musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” is onstage now.

It tells the story of Fats Waller, a larger-than-life man with a larger-than-life legacy, who is easily one of the most influential jazz musicians of the 20th century.

The production features Waller’s famous music, like “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint is Jumpin’,” and “Black and Blue,” but it also highlights Waller’s impact on the world, which is so much bigger than music. He was an entertainer and an artist who broke down barriers in the music industry and society during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 30s.

Five performers and a live jazz band take the stage to tell his story. Among them is a former contestant on NBC’s The Voice, Miya Bass.

“The deeper message is, you know, I don’t want to do this, but I have to do this,” said Bass. “I have to be very performative because being African American, or Black, or a person of color for that nature, in a society where you’re not really welcomed, or in a society where you’re not really taken seriously unless you’re performing.”

Bass is talking about one of the show’s primary themes: the idea of wearing “the mask.”

“The idea of needing to prove yourself, needing to wear a mask for the benefit of someone’s comfort,” said Director and Choreographer Jeffrey Page. “We are attempting to get past our comfort, and getting past our comfort arouses growth.”

Page has directed on Broadway and choreographed for Beyonce. Now, he’s bringing his vibrant vision to Rochester.

“We start to understand a bigger lesson of what Black people in the now and in the past went through, Black people who have represented the trope of Fats Waller,” he said. “So I do think that the show is about Fats Waller, but I also think that the show is about something so much bigger than Fats Waller.”

Watch the full interview with Director and Choreographer Jeffrey Page.

Will Stone, another one of the show’s stars, goes in-depth on what it means to wear “the mask.”

“As Black people, or people of color in general, oftentimes we have to put on this smile to make people feel comfortable,” said Stone. “Through that smile, you’re always one moment away from a tear. It’s a survival mechanism. It’s exhausting. You know, that’s one of the themes of the show, it’s exhausting to keep this mask on.”

Whether it was the late-night dancing crowd or the Sunday morning church crowd, Fats Waller had a way of getting people from all walks of life on their feet. Expect to see a wide range of complex, contrasting emotions throughout the show: moments of exuberant joy and dancing, followed by moments of pain, anger, and exhaustion.

“So the show will be profoundly entertaining, but if you look closer and deeper, then the show will be something else,” said Page.

Page previously directed the show for the Barrington Stage Company, which earned him a New York Times Critics Pick. It’s a production that reviewers have called “profoundly unsettling.”

“It celebrates being inside of that kind of marginalized place. Because we all know that in spaces of marginalization, culture is created,” said Page.

Bass adds that the underlying message of this story, the thing that ties us together, is our shared humanity, saying: “we’re more than just performers and athletes and rappers and a culture that can be mimicked. And we’re actually human. I think that’s the message — that we are human.”

“Ain’t Misbehavin'” is onstage now through Feb. 12 at Geva Theatre Center. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.