Shuffle Along at the Music Box Theatre
Music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake
Original book by F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles
Book by George C. Wolfe
Musical Supervision, Arrangements and Orchestrations by Daryl Waters
Scenic Design by Santo Loquato
Costume Design by Ann Roth
Lighting Design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer
Choreography by Savion Glover
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Starring Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Bill Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon, Joshua Henry, Adrienne Warren, Amber Imam and Brooks Ashmanskas
“What’s it about?” Jerome Robbins frequently posed this question to Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick during the rehearsals of Fiddler on the Roof. According to Jack Viertel in his wonderful new book, The Secret Life of the American Musical, after Robbins asked that question
often enough, Bock and Harnick finally dug down deep and responded: “tradition.” Thus the opening number was born and put the Tevye stories that followed into a large and important context.
Shuffle Along Or The Making Of The Musical Sensation of 1921 And All That Followed — the full title of the overly ambitious, often hugely entertaining but imperfect new musical that just opened at the Music Box theatre — could have used an outsider like Robbins to ask that question. As it now stands (and the long version of the title tells us), Shuffle Along is about three stories: the making of the original Shuffle Along musical and getting it to Broadway (Act 1 and part of Act 2); the people who created and starred in it (the middle of Act 2); and the historical context of African-Americans in the musical theatre (the end of Act 2). As it now stands, these three stories are told sequentially. They have been somewhat interwoven, but the main focus is on just one at a time. The parts feel tonally inconsistent and change abruptly. In the late preview I saw the nearly three-hour show was tedious to follow at times.
F.E. Miller, half of the comedy team of Miller (Brian Stokes Mitchell) and Lyles (Billy Porter) and two of the original four Shuffle Along’s creators, narrates the current show. The other creators were Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry) and Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon), who wrote the jazzy, syncopated songs. It was the first syncopation to appear on Broadway. Miller introduces us to the performers in the original show, which is essentially a review. We meet Lottie Gee (Audra McDonald), Gertrude Saunders and Florence Mills (both played by Adrienne Warren), Eva (Amber Iman), The Harmony Kings, The Jazz Jasmines, the Dancin’ Boys, The Jimtown Flappers. Eventually we meet the only white actor in the show (Brooks Ashmanskas) who plays a producer, the press, a railroad president, etc.
We follow the thin plot and the superficially portrayed characters, as the original Shuffle Along wends its way along the East Coast by train, frequently running out of money but, with effort, staying optimistic about making it to Broadway. Eubie and Lottie have an affair. Once the show opens and is a smash hit, (we’re now in Act 2), the characters gain a bit more depth. The teams — both creative teams as well as Eubie and Lottie — split up. We’re told what happened to the rest of their lives and finally the important place of Shuffle Along in the American Musical Theatre.
One wished for more historical context at the top of the show, but surely the director and author of the book, the highly respected George C. Wolfe (who was head of the public theatre and directed the original Angels in America, after all), must have thought of this and rejected the idea.
What keeps this show bouncing along are the incredibly energetic musical numbers that come at the audience with the speed and force of baseballs hurled from a pitching machine. Savion Glover is at the top of his game with a crack, tap-dancing chorus executing complex rhythms and sometimes using suitcases to accompany themselves. Among other songs, Bryan Stokes Mitchell magically sings an acapella number (called “Swing Along,” I think. There was no list of songs in the program). Then there’s the gorgeous, rich voice of Audra McDonald, alone worth the price of admission. Adrienne Warren is a young Nell Carter with a unique timbre to her voice. Billy Porter has a late, second act solo so filled with emotion that the audience cheered in the middle.
The costumes (Ann Roth) and the scenery (Santo Loquasto) are spectacular. As is the lighting (Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer). Well over 150 spotlights hung throughout the theatre.
So what was missing from this expensive and lavish production? Characters for whom to feel something during most of the show. One does want them in a musical. A cohesive plot would also have been helpful. What could we have not missed? A couple of the musical numbers. (Sometimes in musicals as in writing, one must kill one’s darlings). One wonders how many show stoppers are too many. Eventually it feels like eating candy non-stop.
In spite of the above, you should consider attending Shuffle Along? It’s way too long. It’s too much of a good thing. But for much of the show it is dazzling. And it would be a shame to miss, even with its flaws.