Monday, June 6, 2016

Rollicking, Propulsive Entertainment That Never, Ever Quits!

When director George C. Wolfe accepted the Drama Desk best musical award last night for Shuffle Along he noted that he was accepting the award on behalf of Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, the four men who created the original book, music and lyrics for this groundbreaking 1921 musical. Wolfe explained that this talented quartet "had the very dumb, stupid, brave and heroic idea that they had a story to tell and they could do it on Broadway and that they actually might succeed."
"In honor of their bravery and their ability to change rhythm on Broadway and to change the complexion of Broadway, we are very proud to honor them," Wolfe concluded. Indeed they were brave. And, with Shuffle Along, they gave Broadway a jazzy score with sizzling syncopation, pulsating rhythm and its first ever love scene between two African-American characters built around the haunting melody Love Will Find A Way.
But don't misunderstand. As historic as this sepia-toned musical was, you won't find the original Shuffle Along at Broadway's Music Box Theater. Instead you will find a reimagined version titled Shuffle Along or The Making of The Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. With a new book crafted by Wolfe and choreography by Savion Glover, that's am ambitious agenda no matter how one approaches it. But with a stellar cast headlined by Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon, Joshua Henry and Brooks Ashmanskas, it turns out to be an agenda not only worth pursuing but also largely fulfilled.
Even before the curtain goes up on this big, splashy musical you can hear the stomping and tapping taking place backstage as the company warms up and the excitement builds. And right from the start, the stars appear and are united with a superb company of players in the rousing Broadway Blues. Lest you wonder if a show that starts at this level can maintain its momentum, wonder not.
For Shuffle Along is no mere toe-tapping, hip-slapping, joke-cracking derivative of vaudeville. No way! This is a poignant backstage tale fueled by vivid characters, meaningful melodies, pent-up racial tensions, and moments of bluer-than-blue blues. Amidst it all there's a joyous energy that defies the struggle that uber talented black performers faced just to survive in the America of the 1920s, '30s and beyond.
While Shuffle Along tackles history, it's not an historical musical in the same manner as Hamilton. Unlike Hamilton, Shuffle Along is not built around the story of one person. And unlike Hamilton, it doesn't impose a new musical genre on an old tale.
Instead, it tackles the plight of five people -- Sissle (Joshua Henry), Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon), Miller, (Brian Stokes Mitchell), Lyles (Billy Porter), and performer Lottie Gee (Audra McDonald). Some have termed the show a musical documentary for the way in which it takes us across several decades of black (and to some extent, white) entertainment while remaining true to its origins. So, Shuffle Along is best termed a capacious musical journey -- one that pulls and tugs and ultimately teaches without being preachy or maudlin. But it does share with Hamilton significant chunks of narration to save time and keep the epic story moving along.
To be sure, without a central character to hold it together (the closest to that is Stokes Mitchell's Miller) the show can seem like a needle looking to be threaded. And, with so much ground to cover all at once and a second act focused on stark realities, the show's two sides can also appear disparate. Still, the entire creative team behind Shuffle Along has a way of reanimating the production to bring it into focus, especially with a conclusion that proves to be hauntingly (and refreshingly) thoughtful, ending not with a bang but with a nonetheless resonate whimper.
Among the memorable highlights of this stellar production: Dixon and Henry's evocative Affectionate Dan; McDonald and Dixon's Honeysuckle Time; Stoke Mitchell's soaring, acapella Swing Along with the entire company; the dancers' throbbing, thumping, super-charged Pennsylvania Graveyard Shuffle; McDonald's sexy, sensual Daddy Won't You Please Come Home; McDonald and the company's I'm Just Wild About Harry; the title song with McDonald and the dancing waiters; McDonald and Dixon's You're Lucky To Me; the reinterpreted Memories of You rendered powerfully by McDonald and finally, Billy Porters' astonishing 11 o'clock show-stopper, Low Down Blues.
Savion Glover gives us anguish, hope, frustration and joy in movement -- the best choreography on Broadway. Santo Loquasto gives us a pentimento of imaginative scenic design. Ann Roth provides evocative costumes that flatter both the performer and the moment. And George C. Wolfe's direction shows his usual deft touch in handling Broadway's biggest stars, giving them their due without forgetting the ensemble.
One final note: When Shuffle Along finally got to New York, it never actually opened on Broadway (aka The Great White Way). Instead, it had to settle for the shopworn 63rd Street Music Hall, uptown between 63rd St. and Central Park West. Such was the plight of black performers and black-themed shows. In fact, most black shows never even got this close to Broadway. If you haven't already done so, you owe it to yourself to learn about the plight of early African-America ("negro") performers who plied their trade in some of the dingiest spots imaginable, traveling from town to town under arduous and often dangerous conditions and forced to overnight with outcasts and vagrants in rodent-infested quarters. These were the true trailblazers who opened the door for all the entertainers of color who followed. This is their story!

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