An all-star lead cast, stunning costumes and sensational tap choreography provide plenty of entertainment, but, despite all this razzle dazzle, Shuffle Along never really takes flight.
Firstly, it is important to mention that this performance was a (full price) preview and there was no out of town or off-Broadway or subsidised theatre tryout.
Secondly, the full title needs to be listed, as it makes clear that this is far from a simple revival: Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.
Think of the show as a cross between 42nd Street and Jersey Boys. Director George C. Wolfe has written a new book that tells the story of the creation of the musical Shuffle Along, celebrates it success, then charts the subsequent disappointment and regret of its creators, who never again captured that lightning in a bottle of Shuffle Along’s extraordinary success.
The four creators seek backers, then take the show out of town for tryouts before finally landing a New York venue. Building in scale throughout act one, the peak of Shuffle Along’s on stage success is shown in the dazzling act one finale, “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” Celebrities flock to see the show, and the creators splash their profits on luxury goods. The stars of the show are in demand up town and down. Believing too strongly in their own powers and importance, the quartet of creators becomes two duos, then each duo splits, sabotaging the chance of any further successes.
Each of the five lead performers has significant Broadway credits, so to see them all working together is a thing of beauty. The comedians who wrote the book for Shuffle Along are played by Brian Stokes Mitchell (F. E. Miller) and Billy Porter (Aubrey Lyles). The composers, who, like the writers, had worked in vaudeville are played by Joshua Henry (Noble Sissie) and Brandon Victor Dixon (Eubie Blake).
Mitchell leads a powerful choral number in act one, singing a capella all the way through “Swing Along.” In his big act two number, Mitchell portrays Miller’s on-stage breakdown when abandoned by partner Lyles.
Porter gets the best male costumes as Lyles, who is as flamboyant as one could safely be in the 1920s. Porter’s big song before he leaves for Liberia showcases the incredibly powerful belt of his singing voice.
Revered Broadway leading lady Audra McDonald is in full goddess mode as the talented, but insecure, performer Lottie Gee. As Gee learns new songs, helps new artists, and falls in and out of love, there is no doubting McDonald’s superb acting skills. She proves a talented dancer in this show as well, and, of course, delivers exquisite vocals. Gee has an on-stage breakdown of her own, and McDonald transforms a simple charm song into an 11 o’clock torch song.
Henry and Dixon are excellent in all aspects, but do not quite get the showcase moments afforded to their co-stars.
For most of the show, the ensemble barely has a minute’s break, performing Savion Glover’s brilliant tap choreography in number after number. The tap dancing is sensational enough that aficionados could attend just to watch the incredible dancing of the cast. A fun use of tap comes in act two when each pair of writers has created a new show and the chorus kids from each have a tap-off to represent the rivalry between the shows (sadly, neither was a hit).
Ann Roth’s costumes are a spectacle unto themselves. Chorus outfits are witty and eye-catching. The all-white act one finale is a real highlight. The four creator’s new coats in act two say everything about their change of lifestyle after the success of the show. McDonald has plenty of outfits, with her initial midnight blue velvet gown being a standout.
Santo Loquasto’s scenic design takes an odd turn in act two. Initially, there are rehearsal rooms then the simple sets of 1921. After interval, there are large backlit glossy panels of city skyline that seem out of period and budget of the core show.
While the drama of watching a rock band implode has its inherent schadenfreude, the drama goes too far here when later revivals of Shuffle Along are attacked and denigrated. Also, one can safely presume that these real life characters from the 1920s are no longer with us, so to hear about each of their deaths is quite tedious. The material does not really stand up to a running time of three hours. It will be interesting to see how the show is received when it officially opens.
Shuffle Along was reviewed 8pm 6 April 2016 at Music Box Theatre, New York where it opens 28 April 2016.
Photos: Julieta Cervantes