Article: Dan Bacalzo ~
The abundance of sheer talent currently performing on the stage of the Music Box is phenomenal. Director George C. Wolfe has assembled a top-notch cast for the Broadway production of Shuffle Along, led by Tony Award winners Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Billy Porter, along with Tony nominees Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry.
The musical has an ambitious historical agenda as well, but the results of that effort are mixed. Shuffle Along’s subtitle is “Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.” As that lengthy description indicates, Wolfe – who has also written the book for this current show – is drawing from the history surrounding the first Broadway musical called Shuffle Along, which had a book by F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, and a score by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake.
Sissle and Blake’s songs are still featured in this 2016 version, with some of the more recognizable tunes being “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” “Love Will Find a Way,” and “Honeysuckle Time” – all of which are gloriously sung by McDonald. However, Miller and Lyle’s book scenes only appear in fleeting glances. Wolfe’s intention is not to revive the 1921 show, but instead present a behind-the-scenes look at the first Broadway musical created by African Americans and filled with African American performers.
The four creators are now the play’s main characters, with Mitchell as Miller, Porter as Lyles, Henry as Sissle, and Dixon as Blake. McDonald portrays the original Shuffle Along’s star, Lottie Gee. Adrienne Warren shines in the dual roles of Gertrude Saunders and Florence Mills. Cabaret regular Darius de Haas is one of the four men (along with JC Montgomery, Arbender Robinson, and Christian Dante White) making up the vocal ensemble the Harmony Kings, who perform in the musical.
The first act tells the story of how Shuffle Along got to Broadway, while the second act chronicles the lives of the main players following the musical’s unexpected success. The historical circumstances surrounding the show are fascinating and important, and yet Wolfe’s treatment of them is not always dramatically compelling. His version of Shuffle Along suffers from an expository structure that seems more invested in letting the audience know what happened next as opposed to figuring out a more interesting way to present the material.
That’s not to say that there aren’t engaging elements to the script. For example, there’s an intriguing tension in Miller and Lyles’ use of blackface make-up over their already African American faces. It’s a jarring visual that is bound to unsettle some audience members, and Wolfe’s script directly engages with the complicated dynamics behind this practice. On a lighter note, the romance between Lottie Gee and Eubie Blake provides some of the show’s more satisfying dramatic moments, although that’s in no small part due to the superb performances by McDonald and Dixon.
The main draw of the show, however, remains the musical numbers. Savion Glover’s ebullient choreography has the company tap dancing to Sissle and Blake’s catchy syncopated tunes. Several of the individual performers also get chances to show off what they can do. Mitchell impresses with a first-act a cappella rendition of “Swing Along” that starts slow then builds into a rousing company number during one of the lowest points in the Shuffle Along troupe’s journey to Broadway. Porter practically stops the show with his soulful “Low Down Blues” in the second act.
The sheer showmanship found within Shuffle Along makes it easier to forgive the musical’s flaws. But in objectively evaluating the tuner, I can’t help but be reminded by one of the wittier lines of Wolfe’s book that has an unfortunate resonance with the show he’s created: “Beneath all that polish and veneer is more veneer.”