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Shuffle Along
Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 28, 2016

Shuffle Along Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed Music & lyrics by Noble Sissle & Eubie Blake. Original book by F.E. Miller & Aubrey Lyles. Book by George C. Wolfe. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Choreographed by Savion Glover. Music supervision, arrangements & orchestrations by Daryl Waters. Scenic design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Ann Roth. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Lighting design by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer. Hair design by Mia M. Neal. Cast: Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Portner, Brandon Victor Dixon, Joshua Henry, featuring Adrienne Warren, Amber Iman, Phillip Attmore, Alexandra Bradley, Darlesia Cearcy, Darius de Haas, C.K. Edwards, Leo Ash Evens, Afra Hines, Curtis Holland, Jason Holley, Adrienne Howard, Lee Howard, Kendrick Jones, Lisa Latouche, Alicia Lundgren, JC Montgomery, Erin N. Moore, Janelle Neal, Brittany Parks, Arbender Robinson, Karissa Royster, Britton Smith, Zurin Villanueva, Christian Dante White, Joseph Wiggan, Pamela Yasutake, Richard Riaz Yoder, and Brooks Ashmanskas.
Theatre: Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Audra McDonald and Brandon Victor Dixon
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Theatrical history does not come alive in Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed—and that's a good thing. George C. Wolfe's extravagant new venture at the Music Box doesn't exist to relive or teach the past, but rather explain its role in creating the present we now enjoy. And it does by blending the vocabularies of the early 20th century and 2016 into a single dramatic language that doesn't look, sound, or feel like anything you can see anywhere else.

Ancient lighting instruments positioned side-by-side with state-of-the-art technology. Sets that effortlessly combine the static drops of yesteryear with the more versatile, fragmented visuals of today. Stage-filling tap numbers that entertain you to your marrow, but thrive on their dark underpinnings. Grand glorious current stars (Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Joshua Henry) executing classically classy turns. And, above all else, the prevailing view of the impact of what happens onstage as a catalyst for the bigger cataclysms (good as well as bad) that happen off. This is an evening that is packed, adventurous, and, in its own lighthearted way, powerful, though it never loses sight of what it's saying or where it's going.

If this would be groundbreaking for anyone else, for librettist-director Wolfe it's well-established territory. He's devoted much of his career to similarly exploring perspectives on or from the African-American performance experience in ways that both embrace traditional stereotypes and upend them for a general audience that's frequently much more affluent and much more white than the characters with whom he deals. If Wolfe has never stated his ethos more explicitly than in his own groundbreaking play The Colored Museum, from Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk to The Wild Party to Topdog/Underdog to beyond, he's continued playing with the theme in ways that, even when not wholly successful, have always been deeply thought-provoking. Few, however, have demonstrated the glittery, razzle-dazzle ambition of this one, which suggests a still broader palette and more vivid imagination than Wolfe had yet dared to reveal.

Brandon Victor Dixon with Joshua Henry.
Billy Porter, Brian Stokes Mitchell
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

The launching point, as the title suggests is Shuffle Along, the 1921 tuner by Aubrey Lyles and F.E. Miller (book), Noble Sissle (lyrics), and Eubie Blake (music) that marked the first stem-to-stern all-black musical on Broadway. A handful of enduring names (Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson) were associated with it, but most of the cast members were unknowns. Its plot, about two men running for mayor of Jimtown, U.S.A., was derived from a Lyles-Miller vaudeville sketch, and never the point. And although the jazzy score contained one ironclad soon-to-be standard in "(I'm Just) Wild About Harry" and a few subsidiary hits in "Love Will Find a Way," "Honeysuckle Time," and the title song, it was by and large more fun than memorable. But by igniting an American performance genre, addressing hush-hush race issues, and providing standing-ovation dignity to people who rarely received it in that era, it opened the first of many doors that are still swinging wide.

So Wolfe's story is how Miller (played by Mitchell), Lyles (Porter), Sissle (Henry), Blake (Dixon), and their female lead, Lottie Gee (McDonald), made it happen. Yes, this lets him weave in Shuffle Along songs without being beholden to the time's cringe-worthy tropes, and steer clear of having to dwell too much on the show-within-the-show's superannuated script. But more important, it makes it possible for Wolfe to link the Broadway of then directly to the Broadway of now until it's no longer entirely possible to determine where one ends and the next begins.

He occasionally does this by adopting and adapting backstager clich├ęs (the forbidden romance, being stuck out of town with no money, the everything-goes-wrong rehearsals that somehow resolve into a smash hit) into fresher scenes that surprise us. More frequently, he uses contemporary storytelling techniques to throw new light on old troubles (a two-part, exhaustively tapped train-based death march through Pennsylvania is a wonder to behold). He riffs on himself, too, toying with our reactions to prejudice not by forcing white actors into blackface, but by making it so integral to Miller and Lyles that Mitchell and Porter can't avoid it themselves—and for considerable lengths of time.

The Ensemble
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

It's a thrilling kaleidoscope, both comfortable and unpredictable, that translates for us a vernacular we no longer speak as a culture (and which is probably a good thing). This extends, too, to Wolfe's appropriation of our talents for older duties. No one is utilized more heavily or more perfectly than Savion Glover, whose dances are a heady fusion of timeless tap-hearted hoofing and the edgier, more experimental stuff for which he's acclaimed (with Wolfe, Glover developed and starred in Bring in 'Da Noise...). He's every bit as good at crafting blood-pumping period show-stoppers of lower-key bents as he is reinterpreting down through the generations for his more serious stuff the anger, resentment, and despondency inspired by the period's racial strife.

Glover's work is electrifying, but the arrangements and orchestrations of Daryl Waters so meld together the musical bits and pieces into one seamless whole that they might be more amazing and integral: Every song sounds organic and meticulously spotted, no matter how it's been repurposed or its lyrics rejiggered. (The musical director of the hot-and-brassy pit band is Shelton Becton.) And the sets (Santo Loquasto) and lights (Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer) are always flipping teasingly between old-fashioned and brand-spanking-new without feeling gimmicky; and Ann Roth's costumes are likewise gorgeously elegant incarnations of low-budget cast-offs.

As for the performers, McDonald's lush soprano and oversize comic timing give her the authority she needs to succeed as a delightful throwback: You see in her Lottie Gee great talent that would go unrealized, but also the optimism and determination that's always characterized the most put-upon of hardscrabble stars. Mitchell plays his matinee-idol status and avuncular appeal to the hilt, and his piercing high baritone commands the proper attention for an unwitting impresario unknowingly on the cusp of changing everything. The suave Dixon and the steelier Henry, whose voices contrast as cannily as their manners, are fine support, as are Adrienne Warren (as two second bananas of varying abilities and dedication), Amber Iman (as the company's sharp-tongued matriarch), and Brooks Ashmanskas (putting his hyper-caffeinated energy to jolting use as the many white men who stand in the way of Shuffle Along's success). Only Porter seems wrong—everyone else straddles the decades, but his relentlessly modern singing and comedic chops keep his feet firmly planted in ours alone.

Vastly entertaining and enlightening though the overall package might be, it suffers from two big problems. First is that we don't see (or hear) enough of Shuffle Along in context to judge it against our own standards; only "Wild About Harry" gets the total treatment as the Act I finale, but it's not enough to speak for the whole. And the second act, charting the "All That Followed" chunk of the title, lacks the dynamic narrative thrust of the first, and struggles to maintain the same vibrancy, only regaining it in full for the finale.

It's in this scene, equally melancholy and magical, that Wolfe pulls his final strings to unveil the complete legacy of Shuffle Along, its writers, and its stars. Their fates were not uniformly pleasant, and you must face the unsettling undercurrent of so many of them having fallen into obscurity despite their landscape-altering accomplishment. History is like that sometimes. Wolfe never lets us forget that, but he won't let us forget them, either: He's implanted them in our personal and social consciousness by making something new that gives them the resurrection and reevaluation he believes they deserve. What we have exists because of what they did. Anyone who sees Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed will be hard-pressed not to full-throatedly agree and cheer.

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