The black box of Southwark Playhouse is transformed into a den of glittering bronze and gold in this immensely likable romp through the songs of Fats Waller that is an escapist slice of 1920s Harlem.
First staged as a cabaret in 1978, this revival is led by first-time director Tyrone Huntley, best known as a show-stealing Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, and Strictly Come Dancing’s Oti Mabuse, the South African dance champ making her debut as a theatre choreographer.
It’s a big leap for Mabuse from the two-minute routines of Saturday night telly to a two-hour musical revue but she does a more than respectable job. With a small cast singing continuously, there is only so much dancing you can do, but she adds 20s manners, a dose of the Charleston and swing, and the five performers take it all on with gusto. Mabuse keeps the small stage moving, just as Huntley keeps the pace tight, galloping through Waller’s back catalogue with no stopping for chat in between.
The onstage band has the joint jumping but it’s a singers’ show. Landi Oshinowo offers effortless power; Carly Mercedes Dyer cutesy comic turns and one killer ballad, Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now; Adrian Hansel sings the classic Honeysuckle Rose as if it’s a precursor to the smooth, sexy soul of D’Angelo (listen to the lyrics, it basically is). But it’s Renée Lamb who repeatedly turns these stand-alone songs into mini dramas, with her expressive storytelling, torch singer’s pathos and a voice that moves from soft vibrato to sassy belt.
There are no weak links in the Waller canon, from the woozy melody of Jitterbug Waltz to the spiritedly un-PC Find Out What They Like to the disarming harmonies of Black and Blue (“My only sin is in my skin / What did I do to be so black and blue?”), a rare insight into life beyond the boozy good times. A show with no driving narrative could be hard to pull off, especially when some of the intricacies of the lyrics are lost in the faster numbers, and there may not be a huge amount of depth, but the winning warmth, charm and energy of the cast proves irresistible.
At Southwark Playhouse, London, until 1 June.