George C. Wolfe has taken a Broadway melody of 1921 and placed it in its historical context. In 1921, the year when Shuffle Along was produced, it was exiled to a theater on 63rd Street. Yes, it was considered a Broadway house, but it was many blocks north of the main stem.
Shuffle Along‘s success, however, was extraordinary. The all-black production team enjoyed critical and popular acclaim, and an unexpectedly long-run of 504 performances.
Shuffle Along made stars of its lead actress, Lottie Gee (Audra McDonald in Wolfe’s retelling) and its creative team. Wolfe’s musical has jettisoned the F.E. Miller (Brian Stokes Mitchell)-Aubrey Lyles (Billy Porter) book and replaced it with his own, while keeping the music and lyrics from Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon) and Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry).
Nearly a century later, the musical theater remains indebted to the men and women of color who revolutionized and emboldened Broadway style and syncopation. This is the backstory to Wolfe’s story, but despite the high concept and lofty intentions, the 2016 Shuffle Along… is a very entertaining vaudeville.
As it was refreshing to have a musical like Bright Star based on the American idiom of bluegrass, it is welcome to have one that is based on the other all-American art form, tap. The dances, as designed by Tony-award winner (1996 for Bring in Da Noise Bring in Da Funk, and presumptive for 2016 for Shuffle Along…) are masterly. One number takes the cast on a long circuitous train-trip of tryouts in completely mesmerizing taps. The songs are classics from the Blake-Sissle repertoire, including “I’m Just Wild About Harry” and “Love Will Find A Way,” from the score for the 1921 Shuffle Along.
The ensemble is excellent, with Brandon Victor Dixon and Adrienne Warren (bothTony nominated for Featured Actor and Actress) standing out. The always able Brooks Ashmanskas, as the designated white guy in the cast, performs an excellent second act rain-on-their-parade number.
Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, unlike its progenitor, is playing in the heart of Broadway at The Music Box. It is in an open run, although Audra McDonald will exit on July 24th and return in the winter, to be replaced by Rhiannon Giddens. Choreographer and tapper-extraordinaire, Savion Glover will join the cast on July 24th.