Shuffle Along for a Long Jazzy Ride
The title says a lot about what we are seeing. Shuffle Along Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed is neither a straightforward revival nor is it an entirely original Broadway musical (we shall see what the Tony committee decides soon enough but if it was up to me, this would be considered a New Musical). In general, Shuffle Along, as it is now, is a toe tapping syncopated juke box musical. A historically significant new storytelling structure (book by George C. Wolfe) is layered on top of the 1921 revue-style musical sensation (music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake) that had a thin romantic plot about a mayoral race and a romance (original book by F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles). Wolfe, who also directed this musical, has dropped that thin plot and has crafted a compelling creation story about how two pairs of artists; the musicians, Noble Sissle (played by the handsome and talented Joshua Henry) and Eubie Blake (played by the charming and endearing Brandon Victor Dixon) teamed up with the writers, F.E. Miller (played by the underused but incomparable Brian Stokes Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (played with great humor and style by Billy Porter), came together and against all odds brought their show, Shuffle Along and their cast to the 63rd Street Music Hall on May 23rd, 1921. Barely having enough money for train tickets, wages, and costumes, this ragtag team of uber-talented artists scraped their way through grueling out of town tryouts and racial prejudice to arrive on Broadway at a time when a show like this had never been attempted before. And succeed it did, playing a record breaking 504 performances and making stars out of the likes of Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson.
What a phenomenal idea; weaving in the songs, the incredibly infectious jazz sound, and exuberant tap dancing (Savion Glover has outdone himself with his choreography and surely will be gifted with a nomination next week – https://youtu.be/sUjbZ0KO4SE), in with the drive and energy of this hard won creation story. And it really does work. At least, it really works for Act One. How could it not? We join in with these amazingly talented and creative characters trying to bring the musical Shuffle Along to a New York City still in the throes of the Depression, and want them to succeed. They have racial hurdles to jump (the last black couple to touch on stage, we are told, were dragged off the stage and tarred and feathered). They have huge financial problems to overcome, all while singing some amazing songs and dancing some incredible tap bits during the ‘rehearsal’ process that we are blessed to see. Throw in an incredible turn by Audra McDonald as the real life leading lady, Lottie Gee, and the equally talented but stylistically different Adrienne Warren playing two other performers, Gertrude Saunders and her replacement, Florence Mills, and we are joyfully witnessing some stellar performances, both in song and dance. We cheer them on right until the opening night at the 63rd Street Music Hall. One of the greatest scenes is watching McDonald’s face as she sings the romantic ballad, “Love Will Find a Way” to her black male lover, something that had never been attempted before on stage. Her nervousness as she watches the audience for a possible negative outcry while singing a love song and embracing her black co-star on stage is brilliant. Wolfe smartly closes Act One with the original number that closed Act One back in 1921, and out we go for intermission, wondering how and where this piece can now take us.
Act Two is a whole other beast, and here is where Wolfe lost his way. The drive of Act One left Act Two with little to no destination in mind. Where to go, when the show got to where it was going? Wolfe explores the success of the show and what it does to its creators. We watch them enjoy themselves but ultimately struggle with trying to recreate another hit, but with little success. We watch them fight and squabble with each other as they all try to find themselves and recreate the magic and excitement they felt by bringing Shuffle Along to fruition. And it just doesn’t carry the drive and power of Act One. It feels messy and unfocused, and I felt my mind wander, until, miraculously these spectacular performers are given something amazing to do. The dance numbers are divine, as are the musical numbers. When someone starts to sing or dance, we sit up and pay attention, as we are assured that we are going to hear and see something special and fantastic. And this show doesn’t let us down at those moments. The four male leads are all doing exceptional work, but sadly, it feels like their moments are spread too thin. It is as if there was enough on the table for two servings, not four. Audra on the other hand, shines, and we are reminded once again at just how mega-talented she is. Besides the leads, the supporting actors, Brooks Ashmanskas and Amber Iman, also shine brightly when given something fun and amazing to do. As does Billy Porter, who brings down the house with his Act Two solo number, “Low Down Blues”, one of the only show stoppers given to the four male leads.
But beyond those moments of exhilaration, a lot of time is wasted on material that just doesn’t have the drive or the passion that vibrated off the stage during Act One. I will say that throughout the whole show, I have never seen such powerful tap dancing in my life. I almost felt sorry for the stage’s floor boards taking such a beating just for our immense entertainment. The show wraps up in the only way it can, with a historical nod to the players, and it is a beautiful moment, but at the three hour mark, we are all a bit ready to step outside and rejoin the current Broadway’s sparkling lights and excitement.