|Brandon Victor Dixon as Eubie Blake and Audra McDonald as Lottie Gee in Shuffle Along.|
Shuffle Along, Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed is an unwieldy title for an unwieldy musical. Like its title, Shuffle Along is both innately intriguing and a tad too long-winded to wrap your head around. It is simultaneously a character-driven backstage drama, a sprawling historical panoply about the history of black entertainment, and a metatheatrical rumination on the transient nature of fame and influence. And yet it isn't really any of those things, and that tonal disparity is what ultimately stops Shuffle Along and its hugely talented cast and creative team from achieving the success you'd expect.
The original Shuffle Along is remembered as little more than a footnote in musical theatre history, primarily famous for being the first Broadway musical written, produced, and starring people of color. Tony-winning writer/director George C. Wolfe obviously wants to change that, having turned his attention towards the people behind the show's runaway success (it ran for almost 500 performances at a time when most shows struggled to reach 100). Wolfe has kept most of the original Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake songs, but has written an entirely new libretto shifts the focus behind the scenes of Shuffle Along's rocky road to Broadway, examining how its success impacted the lives of the many strong personalities involved in its creation.
Wolfe's interests are many and varied, and while that certainly keeps the show engaging it doesn't always keep it coherent. Wolfe can't decide whether he wants the show to function as an elaborately staged history lesson or a more traditional book musical, one which hits many of the same beats as countless backstage tales before it. Try as he might, the gifted dramatist can't have things both ways, resulting in a show with some great moments and searing one-liners but which lacks a unifying structural or thematic element to tie the disparate pieces together. Wolfe also hasn't quite covered up the holes left by the many cuts made during the show's extended preview period, where it originally clocked in at over 3 hours. It now lasts a more manageable 2 hours 45 minutes, but there are multiple instances where ideas or scenes seem underdeveloped or artificially shortened.
While Wolfe the Writer hasn't quite ironed out all of Shuffle Along's kinks, Wolfe the Director has so expertly staged what's there that you only realize the show doesn't quite track in hindsight. It opens on a bare stage as the evening's players slowly appear, materializing out of the mists of history to tell their story; it almost suggests the entire evening takes place in some kind of metatheatrical dreamscape, an interesting theatrical conceit that is largely dropped during the middle section only to reappear towards the finale. Santo Loquasto's many set pieces travel on and off the stage at a dizzying pace, with some scenes taking place in front of fully realized environments and others only suggested by the simplest piece of furniture. Wolfe choreographs this dance of performers and scenery like the master he is, and individually every moment of the show works on a guttural level. Only when you try to figure out how the previous moment relates to the one that follows do the cracks and leaps in logic start to show.
Whenever things start to move beyond Wolfe's ability to maintain interest, he wisely lets Tony-winning tap legend Savion Glover's choreography take over. Glover's routines are dynamic and thrilling, innately theatrical in their surprising and precise rhythms. His ability to deploy dancers on a stage is awe-inspiring, with ever-shifting formations of talented tappers commanding both your attention and respect. Glover's choreography for the opening "Broadway Blues" sets a bar the rest of the show never quite clears, although it comes awfully close during the train station montage "Pennsylvania Graveyard Shuffle" and the "Rang Tang/Chocolate Dandies" dance battle.
Shuffle Along also features the starriest collection of Tony-winning and nominated performers Broadway has seen in quite some time, an embarrassment of riches all given their time in the spotlight. Headlining the cast is six time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald as the show-within-a-show's leading lady Lottie Gee, and as always the theatrical legend delivers a sensational performance. This is a decidedly different McDonald than we've seen during her past few Broadway outings, allowing the acclaimed actress an all-too-rare chance to show her lighter side and flex her comedic muscles. She also gets the chance to show off every color imaginable in her heaven-sent soprano, from her toe-tapping "(I'm Just) Wild About Harry" to a jazzy rendition of the title song to an exquisitely sung and utterly heartbreaking "Memories of You." As with everything, McDonald applies herself 110% here, creating yet another richly realized and utterly believable performance.
No one else gets the same amount of stage time as McDonald, but that doesn't stop the many supporting players from making strong impressions. Past Tony nominees Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry make for a fine vaudeville pair as composers Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, with Henry in particular doing his best work to date as the proud, dignified Sissle. Meanwhile, Tony winners Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter play bookwriters F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles with panache. Mitchell's easygoing command of the stage acts as a nice counterbalance to the antics of the other three, leading the rousing a cappella "Swing Along" in the middle of the first act. Porter's flamboyant performance recalls a bit more of his Lola from Kinky Boots than is strictly necessary - that particular brand of fierceness comes across as anachronistic here - but the actor is certainly charismatic and has the most overtly showstopping number with his "Low Down Blues." And relative newcomer Adrienne Warren makes quite the impression in the dual roles of the outlandish Gertrude Saunders and future star Florence Mills, especially with her transfixing performance as the later discovers her own star power under Lottie's tutelage.
As this Shuffle Along so deftly illustrates, creating a Broadway show has always been hard work, and given the increasing sophistication of the medium it's probably even harder today than it was back in 1921. So in many ways the shortcomings of George C. Wolfe's book are understandable, and this production shows the kind of unadulterated ambition that should be encouraged and applauded even when it doesn't fully succeed. A messy, interesting show like Shuffle Along is preferable to a well executed bland one, and seeing so much Tony-worthy talent on one stage is a rare opportunity that should definitely be savored. The show may not quite equal the most famous works of the accomplished cast, but with artists of this caliber even their less successful efforts are still mighty fine.