Shuffle Along: Theater review by David Cote
The full title of this extraordinary showbiz excavation-renovation masterminded by George C. Wolfe—Shuffle Along or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed—is very precisely worded. His first act concerns blackface vaudeville comedians F.E. Miller (Brian Stokes Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (Billy Porter) teaming up with debonair songwriters Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry) and Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon) to create the groundbreaking musical Shuffle Along. Among other things, the show ended the romance color barrier by depicting African-American characters in love scenes. After intermission, once their baby has become the toast of Broadway, we learn about “all that followed.”
The first half is sensational; the second is difficult, in terms of our heroes’ postsuccess fates and how engagingly their narratives play out. But with a cast this incandescent (I haven’t even mentioned Audra McDonald’s tender, guarded brilliance as diva Lottie Gee) and Wolfe staging a constant flow of miracles, there’s an abundance of joy and style that smooths over stylistic rough edges and knotty stitching of history to myth. Is it bizarre that we leave this passionate homage humming Sissle and Blake’s dreamy standards—“Love Will Find a Way” and “I’m Just Wild About Harry”—but with almost no sense of Miller and Lyles’s book?
However the Tony Awards may categorize it, Shuffle Along is not a revival by any stretch. It sets songs from Sissle and Blake’s catalogue (and ones Blake wrote with other lyricists) in a new book by Wolfe that tracks characters backstage, center stage and at the footlights addressing the audience. Actors in character explain, for example, how the company retailored antebellum-period dresses into racy chorus-girl outfits. (The dramaturgical tactic is vaguely Jersey Boys meets 42nd Street.) Given the obscurity into which the original Shuffle Along has fallen, the new work is part archaeological dig, part documentary, part Afropunk collage of fact and fantasy. Toward the end of the night, in reference to his age, Blake allows that he might have “rearranged the truth.” Wolfe has done the same, but it doesn’t make the result any less true.
Above all, we can luxuriate in a breathtaking piece of showmanship, featuring more talent crowding a stage than pretty much any other Broadway show at present (and yes, that includes Hamilton). And what outstanding design: Ann Roth’s Jazz Age suits and dresses practically Charleston without bodies in them; Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer engineer lighting coups, from tremulous spotlights to hot pinks and cool blues. And, given the matrix of tunes from various sources that are interspersed with old and new lyrics, music supervisor, orchestrator and arranger Daryl Waters does astounding work weaving it all into a whole.
Oh, and there’s dance—miles and miles of ecstatic, syncopated genius, courtesy of Savion Glover. The way Wolfe & Co. tell it, the subjects of their show opened the door for African-American entertainers then got pushed aside in the rush to enter. Shuffle allowed those who came after to sprint.—David Cote
Music Box Theatre (Broadway). Music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. Original book by F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles. Book by George C. Wolfe. Directed by Wolfe. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.
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