Directed by George C. Wolfe
Reviewed by Michele Willens
Theatre Reviews Limited
Officially the last production of the 2015/16 season, “Shuffle Along” is the much anticipated not– quite -revival starring Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell. The full title is “Shuffle Along: The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” and indeed, it tells the story of a Broadway show that was the first to star an all-black cast.
In other words, this is not a new version—though the songs by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissel are those from 1921. No, this is a rather original hybrid of entertainment, story telling and history. The first act is pretty much pure joy from start to finish, relating the “let’s put on a show!” ups and downs of the determined producers and composers who pulled a scrappy cast together to break down barriers. (And found a white man to put up the money.)
It is chock full of dancing, song, dazzling costumes, and you could probably leave at intermission and feel totally satisfied.
Some audiences have problems with the second act, which sort of loses the emotional threads and becomes more of a history lesson.Personally, I was not disappointed, but then I appreciate when dots are connected and knowing where all these folks ended up.
What matters here is the talent and there is a whopping amount of it on the stage of the Music Box Theatre. Audra McDonald is the top draw and she is sensational. I know, what else is new? Well, she is funnier here than I have ever seen her. In fact, I am not sure I have ever seen her be funny. She is sexy. (“I know how to say I’m not interested in seven languages’) Of course her singing is remarkable but who knew she could hoof too?
(While we’re on the subject of hoofing, Savion Glover will surely be tapping his way up to the Tony ceremony stage in June. His choreography is joyous and inventive. Watch what a troupe can do with suitcases and well-earned train tickets in hand.)
Brian Stokes Mitchell serves as a moderator, as well as portraying one of the real-life producers who got the show shuffling along. His partner is played delightfully by Billy Porter,who earns some big winking laughs. Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry are equally excellent as Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle.
Everyone has his or her big moments, and that has to include the breakout star of the show, Adrienne Warren. Watching the seasoned diva played by McDonald show Warren’s character some tricks of the trade is fascinating and applicable in oh so many ways.
The man behind this revisited non-revival is George C. Wolfe, a more dazzling director than succinct writer. You can almost feel the energy dissipating as we get near the end, but the performers just keep keeping on. It is refreshing to see “numbers” that are more than just the next song on the list. These are spoken, danced, sung, and repeated as fully formed pieces. In one, for example, a tapper and Audra McDonald take Eubie Blake’s “I’m Just Wild About Harry” and transform it from something old to something new right before our eyes.
“Everybody knows– with colored shows” (begins onelyric)-“that white folks don’t come.” Well, this production is playing across the street from “The Color Purple” and “Eclipsed,” and all three are bringing in more than just those happy to see folks like them up on stage.
“Shuffle Along”—and its long subtitle—took its time getting up and was apparently trimming right up until opening night. It’s not perfect and it’s not the game changer the original was. But I hope it stays put for a long time.