Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed continues at the Music Box Theatre, New York.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Whether it’s considered a revival or a new musical, Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed is for most of its overstuffed duration an exuberant entertainment. It’s also a social and showbusiness history lesson that’s told with unquestionable pride and elegant passion.
As the title so determinedly spells out, the show centres on the backstage story of one of the first Broadway musicals with both an all-black cast and all-black creative team. It broke taboos, letting black performers take on traditional roles, sing love songs and tell a real story. And it became a hit in the process.
The reverence and deep affection that its creator, director-book writer George C. Wolfe, feels for the people who made Shuffle Along, in the face of a country and business still rampant with racism, is powerfully palpable. It infuses the cast as well, and elevates the show with an air of dedication, a sense of obligation being fulfilled. And in turn, the starry cluster of African-American Broadway talents that have been pulled together to fulfil Wolfe’s vision seems to only further validate the importance of the story.
They include six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, as Lottie Gee, the leading lady of the 1921 Shuffle Along. Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter, both Tony winners, play the vaudeville team of F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, who both wrote and appeared in the show.
The songwriting combo of lyricist Noble Sissle and composer Eubie Blake are portrayed by Joshua Henry and Brandon Victor Dixon, whose bios are studded with Tony nominations. Adding to the marquee lustre is tap dance idol Savion Glover, who did the choreography.
Wolfe tells the story in quasi-documentary fashion. The actors, in character, especially Mitchell’s polished Miller, step forward and address the audience directly to set up scenes or fill in factoids. And happily, there’s nothing dry or stilted in this. The actors are totally engaging. Their immediate rapport with the audience is a large part of the show’s appeal.
In Act I, we see the creative team getting together, finding financing, going into rehearsal, and battling with each other and cast members over artistic decisions. A backstage romance begins between Gee and the married Blake, and the company embarks on a precarious pre-Broadway tour, with money in short supply.
The proceedings are filled to the brim with tap dance numbers that burn up the stage; choreographer Glover, one of the primary forces in modern tap, demonstrates he also understands the infectious joy of vintage combinations. His dances and the dancers are excitement incarnate.
Of course, it all has the familiar air of a ‘let’s-put-on-a-musical’ musical. However, the particular circumstances of Shuffle Along give things an affecting measure of significance. Finally, as McDonald’s Lottie Gee reworks a Blake and Sissle tune ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry’ from a Strauss-like waltz tempo into a boldly scatting jazz production number, it brings down the Act I curtain in triumph.
In Act II, their show becomes a Broadway hit, but success takes its toll. Partnerships and lovers break up and things turn a bit bitter. It’s here that Wolfe’s book gets a little mired down with too much information. Even the tap numbers begin to seem a little repetitive.
Still, there’s much that’s enthralling. Among the highlights are two – not one but two – 11 o’clock numbers: McDonald’s torchy rendering of ‘Memories of You’, which builds to a Tosca-like majesty, and Porter’s rage-filled ‘Low Down Blues’. (Maybe I’m now guilty of too much information, but ‘Memories of You’, one of Eubie Blake’s greatest standards, wasn’t in the original Shuffle Along, and the lyrics were written by Andy Razaf, not Sissle.)
The production values, like the performers, are eye-filling, with Santo Loquasto’s sets, dramatically lit by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, Ann Roth’s costumes and Mia M. Neal’s hair designs adding vividly to the period feel.
Filling out the cast in key roles are a buoyant Adrienne Warren, playing both Gertrude Saunders and the more celebrated Florence Mills, and the ingenious Brooks Ashmanskas, the token Caucasian taking on a number of peripheral white folks.
The question of whether the show should be classified as a new musical or a revival was a major topic during early discussions of the forthcoming Tony Awards. The producers opted vigorously to call it a revival, so that it would not have to compete as a new musical against the seemingly invincible Hamilton.
However, the Tony powers-that-be have decided that it is indeed a new musical. The same decision was made earlier by the Drama Desk, another theatrical competition that takes into consideration Off-Broadway along with Broadway, where Hamilton was ineligible. That’s because Hamilton, when it was Off-Broadway, was named best musical by Drama Desk last year.
But whatever happens, the Shuffle Along folks can find solace in the fact that the work they are celebrating paved the way for such shows as Hamilton and many others.
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