'Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed': Theater Review

Julieta Cervantes
(L-R) Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Joshua Henry and Brandon Victor Dixon in 'Shuffle Along'
Messy but thrilling.

Writer-director George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover reteam on another unique journey into black history, featuring a radiant Audra McDonald.

It's almost impossible to stay still in your seat when the internally motorized ensemble of Shuffle Along explodes into one of choreographer Savion Glover's seismic tap routines, or when the thoroughbred leads wrap their velvet pipes around those syncopated jazz sounds. Scene after scene dazzles in one of the most electrifying entertainments on Broadway. The uncommon ambition behind writer-director George C. Wolfe's project is baked into the show's hefty subtitle: Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. And if the resulting historical reappraisal is more successful at charting the creative high than the deflating hangover that came after, the performances alone make it unmissable.

The show chronicles the backstage struggle to bring the first all-black jazz musical comedy to Broadway, with chorines that actually hoofed it up rather than just promenading like stiff mannequins in massive headgear, and a plot that included the then-radical element of a love story between two African-Americans. The show was the baby of two vaudeville duos who met at a 1920 NAACP benefit: F.E. Miller (Brian Stokes Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (Billy Porter) wrote the play about a mayoral race on which it was based, and Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry) and Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon) contributed music and lyrics.

As told here, another important part of the show's gestation was Lottie Gee (Audra McDonald), an established "chitlin circuit" star who had toured internationally as a soloist and was something of a grand diva by the time she joined the company. "Nothing but high notes and bad attitude" is how the very smooth Sissle describes her before launching an ill-considered charm offensive that gets a withering reception. However, the married Blake's more aw-shucks manner wins Lottie over, and they begin a long affair. That beautifully played romance wants to be the heart of the show, even if Wolfe's overstuffed shambles of a book too seldom lets it.

Brandon Victor Dixon and Audra McDonald

After touring for almost a year around neighboring states with minimal backing, the production arrived in New York $18,000 in debt and landed at a 63rd Street dive with no orchestra pit or dressing rooms. But the troupe refused to give up, and the show became the talk of the town, running almost 500 performances. Despite two subsequent revivals, however, it was largely forgotten, eclipsed by more sophisticated black musicals that followed. The aim of this celebratory new macro-musical is to acknowledge that bittersweet outcome while reclaiming the original Shuffle Along’s jubilant place in the history books.

Wolfe has always been one of the theater's boldest cultural archeologists, sifting through the past in adventurous projects like The Colored Museum, The Wild Party and Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, his last collaboration with Glover, 20 years ago. There are structural echoes of those shows here, juggling straight-ahead narrative with presentational revue-style episodes, as well as thematic overlap in the probing investigation of history and its contemporary legacy.

However, while the showmanship is extraordinary, Shuffle Along could have benefited from a pre-Broadway developmental run to hone the fluidity of its storytelling. There are issues with exposition overload and timeline confusion in the first act, and then an increasingly unwieldy sprawl of multiple narrators and digressive subplots in the second, hitched together at the end with contextual considerations and footnotes. This is a show that spreads its focus among five principal characters, leaving it without a strong protagonist or a unifying point of view. But even if it works better as the reanimation of a lost Broadway milestone than a portrait of the creative team behind it, the project's strengths far outweigh its flaws.

The cast is magnificent. It goes without saying at this point that there's nothing the superhuman McDonald can't do onstage, but rarely do we get to see her cut loose in exuberant comedic mode to the extent she does here. Her sweeping first entrance — wearing a radiant smile and a royal blue velvet shimmy fringe dress — shoots a high-voltage charge through the audience. That connection never dims, whether she's whooping it up in "I'm Just Wild About Harry," subbing for the brass section with the marvelous Dixon in their duet, "You're Lucky to Me," or pouring out heartache in the torch song, "Memories of You." Her coquettish spin on "Daddy (Won't You Please Come Home)" is such a saucy treat it ought to be outlawed. And she can tap-dance, too!

Even beyond her numbers, McDonald kills it with her timing — every word, look or gesture smacks its target. One of the most delightful scenes has Lottie taking newcomer Florence Mills (Adrienne Warren, a kewpie-doll firecracker) under her wing and coaching her through the number "I'm Craving for That Kind of Love." The exchange (between Broadway royalty and a gifted young talent) is a concentrated master class, as Lottie hijacks the song, airborne on her own glorious sounds, before stepping back with a sinking face as she realizes the girl is a serious threat.

The four male leads are equally consummate stage artists who go a long way toward finding depth in their underdeveloped characters. Mitchell and Porter establish an amusingly testy good cop/bad cop rapport that's distinct from the dynamic between Dixon and Henry, one easygoing, the other slicker, more driven. Among their high spots, Mitchell puts his soaring baritone behind "Swing Along," accompanied by the syncopated slapping of hands on suitcases, to lift the company's spirits when the tour money doesn’t come through; Dixon and Henry are a riot doing the comedy song, "Affectionate Dan"; and Porter sends "Low Down Blues" through the roof, even if it's unclear why Aubrey gets the emotional 11 o'clock number.

The company of 'Shuffle Along'

The detailed attention to period performance styles is exceptional, as is the degree to which the stars all pull their weight in the galvanic dance numbers. There's no quick retreat to the side of the stage here while the chorus kids do their stuff, though the ensemble most definitely takes charge in a bravura sequence called "The Pennsylvania Graveyard Shuffle," a vigorous locomotive tap ballet that marks a grueling statewide series of one-nighters. The energy and elasticity of Glover's work is simply astonishing, as are the skills of his athletic dancers, who effortlessly evoke the heyday of the Nicholas Brothers. And the rich vocal arrangements and orchestrations of Daryl Waters make the musical numbers sizzle.

The visuals also are top-notch. Santo Loquasto's scenic design ranges from the eloquent simplicity of a bare stage with a ghost light through elaborate backdrops and flats modeled on those used at the time. Ann Roth's costumes replicate the styles of the day with wit and flair. Her wacky creations for a Chinese restaurant scene are inspired, as are her flashy threads for the guys when they become suddenly flush with success. And nobody does vintage showbiz lighting like Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.

It's a hazard of every rise-and-fall story that the downward spiral can bring a corresponding loss of buoyancy to the material. Wolfe's book exacerbates that by attempting to cover too much and sacrificing focus as tensions flare, rivalries erupt, opportunities are botched and bitter disappointments ensue. Somehow, none of that makes very trenchant drama.

There's interesting evidence of cultural appropriation (George Gershwin allegedly stole the signature bars of "I Got Rhythm" from Shuffle Along pit musician William Grant Still), and poignancy in the discovery that many of the show's strutting stars had to return to civilian jobs after their time in the spotlight. Harlem Renaissance patron Carl Van Vechten (Brooks Ashmanskas, none too subtly multitasking as all of the story's white characters) takes snarky pleasure in his sadly accurate prediction that the musical would not be remembered. But while a production number is fashioned around that forecast, too much of the concluding information is imparted documentary-style, resulting in a limp ending.

However, even if the structural limitations of Wolfe's undertaking are unable to support the scope of his noble intentions, it's a genuine thrill to watch this outrageously talented cast herald the achievements of a team that brought innovative black artistry to mainstream American theater. In a Broadway season notable for making the Great White Way a full spectrum of onstage diversity, it's good to honor the pioneers.

Venue: Music Box Theatre, New York
Cast: Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon, Joshua Henry, Brooks Ashmanskas, Adrienne Warren, Amber Iman, Phillip Attmore, Darius de Haas, Afra Hines, Curtis Holland, Adrienne Howard, Kendrick Jones, Lisa LaTouche, J.C. Montgomery, Erin N. Moore, Janelle Neal, Brittany Parks, Arbender Robinson, Christian Dante White, Joseph Wiggan, Pamela Yasutake, Richard Riaz Yoder
Director: George C. Wolfe
Book: George C. Wolfe; original book: F.E. Miller & Aubrey Lyles
Music & lyrics: Noble Sissle & Eubie Blake
Set designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Lighting designers: Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Music director: Shelton Becton
Musical supervision, arrangements & orchestrations: Daryl Waters
Choreographer: Savion Glover
Executive producers: Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson
Presented by Scott Rudin, Roy Furman, Columbia Live Stage, Center Theater Group, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Broadway Across America, Heni Koenigsberg, The Araca Group, Peter May, Jon B. Platt, Color Mad Productions, Daryl Roth, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Scott M. Delman, Sonia Friedman, Ruth Hendel, Independent Presenters Network, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Len Blavatnik, Spring Sirkin, Eli Bush

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