a theatre, film & pop culture review
Who: George C. Wolfe, book writer & director; Savion Glover, choreography; the entire amazing cast including Audra McDonald
Where: Broadway’s Music Box Theatre
When: March 15 (first preview) – (currently on sale through) Oct. 9, 2016. Opening: April 28
Why Watch: In 1921, Shuffle Along became an unlikely musical hit, altering the face of both the Broadway musical and New York City. Helmed by two-time Tony Award-winning director (who also wrote the book) George C. Wolfe, featuring the choreography of the world’s best tap dancer (I’m pretty sure that is his legit title), Savion Glover, and starring an insanely talented cast headlined by six-time Tony-Award winner Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Joshua Henry, and Brandon Victor Dixon, this reimagining
of the 1921 sensation is overflowing with the best of Broadway. (This production boasts 27 Tonys among its cast and creative team, with lighting designer Jules Fisher – sorry, Audra! – reigning supreme with a whopping nine to his name.)
First, a note: I saw Shuffle Along on April 12, more than two weeks before opening. So this is not a review, as the show is going through changes nightly (after the performance I saw, two whole scenes were swapped out). This is merely some commentary on the source material and the broader strokes of Wolfe’s production. Any “criticisms” are made with the understanding of the ongoing process and out of love for this huge(ly important) undertaking by all involved.
One of the earliest hit musical comedies written by, directed, and starring African Americans, Shuffle Along proved that white audiences would line up for a black show – and come all the way uptown to do so. Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Langston Hughes (who claimed that Shuffle initiated the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance), George Gershwin, Al Jolson, and more attended the show not just once, but multiple times, including Wednesday midnight performances added to meet popular demand. Because of massive crowds in front of the theatre, traffic was redirected and 63rd Street became a one-way street. Florenz Ziegfeld hired the chorines from Shuffle Along to teach his own chorus girls how to dance for his follies. It ran for over a year, and nearly 500 performances, to sold-out crowds and introduced the world to talents like Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, and Florence Mills (seemingly the Audra McDonald of her day). It had multiple tours and even spinoffs (Struttin’ Along). It was, by all indications, a genuine sensation.
Shuffle Along broke boundaries for black performers in theatre, but it wasn’t exactly progressive in regards to its views on race. The original plot, crafted in a revue-style by F.E. Miller & Aubrey Lyles, centers on a dishonest mayoral election in Jimtown, USA, and the black performers, as was tradition at the time (i.e., the only way white audiences found black performers onstage acceptable), donned blackface. It was also chockfull of great pop tunes by Noble Sissle & Eubie Blake like “I’m Just Wild About Harry” (so popular it, a song by two African Americans, was Truman’s presidential campaign song in 1948) and “Love Will Find a Way.” The latter was perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of Shuffle: would white audiences accept a romance between two black characters? (Until that point, black actors couldn’t so much as hold hands onstage; black sexuality, essentially, was seen as threatening.) The answer was an unprecedented yes. There’s also the argument that Shuffle introduced syncopation; i.e., jazz dance, to the Broadway musical.
Broadway’s current reimagining is the brainchild of director-writer George C. Wolfe. This Shuffle Along is more of a backstage drama, telling the saga of how the musical was created. This is a smart angle; the original show, after all, was acclaimed for its music, but criticized for its unaccomplished book, which was more like a string of comedy sketches than coherent drama (Miller & Lyles were a comic duo who had never written a musical before). There’s innumerable stories surrounding the making of, and after-story, of the musical, and Wolfe, who is clearly fascinated by how a show could be considered so monumental at its conception, but then be treated as nothing but a historical footnote years later, overstuffs his retelling.
Wolfe’s Shuffle is narrated by its creators – Miller & Lyles and Sissle & Blake – which, inevitably, calls for a good deal of (ie., too much) exposition. So many are involved in Shuffle‘s creation, and Wolfe, understandably, wants to give each his or her due, but there simply isn’t time to fully develop each of the characters and situations he introduces. The tragedy is that it’s all so historically and dramatically interesting that you want to know more even as you become antsy in your seat (on 4/12, the show ran three hours). Wolfe, for example, can’t help but include a scene in which Sissle (Joshua Henry) is flattered by a bouncer just before the same bouncer points him toward the “colored entrance” of the club he’s meant to be a guest at. It’s a moment of blunt commentary on the racial double standards experienced by the show’s creators as they became famous in both black and white circles, but it’s the only one like it in the show. Is it significant? Of course, everything that Wolfe includes is, but the director-writer could’ve used a collaborator – someone to edit down his well-intentioned ambition. Wolfe so badly wishes to honor the show and people he feels were unjustly forgotten, but it’s clear he’s too close to the project to do what it really requires: cut and combine, with an unsentimental hand and heart.
Forgetting all its dramaturgical issues (an ironic echo of the show’s original reception), there is so much to love. The large cast is sensational in every sense of the word, making one wonder why we don’t see more of them in roles as significant. Brian Stokes Mitchell, for example, a comic, gorgeously voiced, tap-dancing godsend (he replaced tapping legend Gregory Hines in Wolfe’s Jelly’s Last Jam) hasn’t been on Broadway in over six years. (Could it be because of a trend of race-blind – instead of race-conscious – casting?) These are some of our best performers (you don’t need me to tell you how good Audra is as the charmingly narcissistic and talented Lottie Gee, Shuffle‘s original star), and generally speaking, they deserve better than what is usually on offer. But here, they are treated like the Broadway royalty they are with richly textured ’20s suits for the men and beautiful fringe and furs for the women by Ann Roth and lit lovingly and with showbiz pizzaz by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer as they transition from scene-to-scene with Santo Loquasto’s versatile and smartly spare set. The production quality is on point for this Entertainment with a capital E.
This Shuffle Along also brims over with tap dancing when there’s no dramatic need for it, but honestly, who cares when its all so glorious? The tap is constant, unstoppable, and thrilling. Savion Glover’s genius with syncopated rhythms is on full, eye-popping display, and the ensemble numbers are as good as it gets – precise, insanely clever, and absolutely breathtaking. Once the tapping starts, you hope it never stops. “Without mess,” says George C. Wolfe, “you can’t create something wonderful.” Truer words, for this Shuffle Along is a wonderful mess that surely will become less messy and more wonderful by opening.
Bechdel Test: PASS
Racial Bechdel Test: PASS