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Review: This Joint Is Jumpin' (The Other Palace)

This celebration of Fats Waller features the UK debut of Broadway star Lillias White

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Here's a joint that isn't jumpin' so much as laid back to the point of being horizontal. This celebration of Fats Waller is a concert rather than a piece of theatre and while there is nothing wrong with that it's not easy to work out what book writers Jeremy M Barker and Patrice Miller actually did: there is a half-hearted attempt at a story involving a rent party prompted by an eviction notice but that is pretty much forgotten as the evening draws on.

Such bits of script that do creep in are too lacking in focus and poorly directed to make much impact. By comparison, that other Waller tribute Ain't Misbehavin' - which spotlights more generally familiar numbers than the ones here - looks like a masterpiece of dramatic tension.

But there is a lot of good to concentrate on in this undeniably enjoyable evening. Firstly, there's the UK debut of Broadway stalwart - and Tony winner - Lillias White, and she is a treat, with a silky, sweetly powerful belt, megawatt smile and enough cheeky joie de vivre to light up a room far bigger than The Other Palace's studio. The other vocalists - Michael Mwenso, who co-conceived the show, and Vuyo Sotashe - are also pretty damn fine, although they inevitably lack a little in charisma next to the dynamite Ms White.

Desiree Burch is a compelling and likeable presence as the androgynous MC Sammy Slyde, although the character is so sketchily drawn that she would be entirely superfluous if it weren't for the sheer force of Burch's personality.

The show's other co-conceiver is choreographer Michela Marino Lerman who is undeniably an astonishingly accomplished tapper but performs with a sort of clenched jollity that proves a little enervating to watch. However well executed, the repeated pattern of having the two men singing on one side of the tiny stage while the two dancers - the other is the engaging Joseph Wiggan - hoof away opposite, becomes tedious. However, Wiggan's explosive tap solo in the second half is almost worth the price of admission by itself.

The segment where a letter is read aloud describing a horrific Ku Klux Klian attack sits oddly alongside the amiable party atmosphere elsewhere, but at least it provides an impetus for White to tear into "Black And Blue" with a ferocity and commitment that is truly spine tingling, and all the more so because she begins the number in a state of grief-stricken stoicism. It is a remarkable performance.

Appropriately for a show that stands or falls by the quality of its music, the band - The Shakes - are a terrific ensemble. Pianist Mathis Picard in particular is a knockout, as dynamic of personality as he is virtuosic on the keys.

Judged purely on theatrical terms this is a somewhat underwhelming evening, but if it were being performed in a cabaret or supper club it would be great entertainment.

This Joint is Jumpin' runs at The Other Palace until 15 April.

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