George C. Wolfe often uses the word “griot,” meaning an oral historian, to describe his mission as a writer and director. So it’s no surprise that in writing and directing the new Broadway musical Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, at the Music Box, he’s once again taken on a griot’s duties to report on a significant event in African-American history.
Having used dance as a metaphor 20 years ago, with Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, to examine the same rich, endlessly troubled history, he’s now chosen Shuffle Along, which many consider the first black musical (a highly debatable point) as a follow-up metaphor. Written by Eubie Blake (music), Noble Sissle (lyrics) and Aubrey Lyles and Flournoy Miller (book), it opened at Broadway’s 63rd Street Music Hall on May 23, 1921.
Or did the boundary-pushing enterprise even bow on the Main Stem? As Billy Porter, playing the wisecracking Lyles, quips, “Sixty-third Street isn’t Broadway. Forty-second Street is Broadway!”
The crusading Wolfe designed Noise/Funk with inventive tap-dance maven Savion Glover. His goal then: to position entertainment as the irresistible enticement for disseminating more serious messages. Now he impressively joins forces with Glover again Notice that the full title of this show precludes any consideration that this is a strict revival of the original Shuffle Along.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Lingering book problems…[/pullquote]If the results of Wolfe and Glover’s effort aren’t quite as satisfying this time, there’s plenty to soothe the fun-seeker and the enlightened spectator alike. Be assured that the grim early buzz about the show’s growing pains was only that. For several decades and for financial reasons, new musicals too often haven’t had road tours to work out their problems. That’s the quickest way to explain why Wolfe might have benefited from more time with this Shuffle Along, especially to solve its lingering book problems.
The immediate pluses in this still-somewhat-sketchy, still-somewhat-random Shuffle Along are, first and foremost, the cast, starting with six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald as its lead marquee name. Wearing a succession of eye-popping Ann Roth costumes and Mia M. Neal wigs (often marcelled, of course), McDonald appears as Shuffle Along’s original-cast diva Lottie Gee, a proud woman who falls into a love affair with married composer Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon).
McDonald (back to using her own voice rather than Billie Holiday’s) sings like an angel on a nearby cloud, and she does something gorgeous late in the evening with “Memories of You.” What’s new in her repertoire is expert tap-dancing. (My guess is she and her fellow performers took more than one tap class with Glover.) The game McDonald also gets to strut (shuffle?) her dramatic stuff in the parts of Act II turned over to the aftermath of the original Shuffle Along, which, despite running more than 400 performances, left rocky relationships between its creators.
Sharing the stage is Brian Stokes Mitchell as F.E. Miller, Joshua Henry as Noble Sissle, and Porter and Dixon. (Miller and Lyles, by the way, were a hot comedy team, while Sissle and Blake were already, by 1921, known as snazzy tunesmiths.) All play carefully differentiated characters but each gives off a powerhouse presence, acting, singing and tapping like houses afire. One of the high points is Porter’s delivery of “Low Down Blues,” but I fear he risks vocal problems the way he heartily belts the tune.
Among those making up the ensemble — one that nearly replicates the ample size of 1920s musical comedies — is Brooks Ashmanskas as several of the white folks (some helpful, some not) whom the central figures encounter on their way to that 1921 opening and their subsequent downward descents. Dancing from time to time and even at one point holding conversations as, and between, two men, he also does a fast Noël Coward impersonation (Coward was a Shuffle Along fan) as well as plays essayist and photographer Carl van Vechten, who championed the Harlem renaissance but not Shuffle Along.
Adrienne Warren tidily switches from self-impressed chanteuse Gertrude Saunders to meek-sparrow Florence Mills, while Amber Iman is forceful as singers Eva and Mattie Wilkes. Often pressing to the foreground as The Harmony Kings are Darius de Haas, JC Montgomery, Arbender Robinson and Christian Dane White.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]McDonald sings like an angel on a nearby cloud.[/pullquote]To put it another way, this cast boasts an embarrassment of riches, including the indefatigable dancers going to town on Glover’s strenuous routines. Acclaimed for his modernizing tap with unbounded vigor, here Glover respects period choreography when backing up the original Shuffle Along songs. This is definitely true of Act I finale, “I’m Just Wild about Harry.” At other times, he keenly draws on his updated techniques. While his numbers sometimes threaten to register as repetitious, they get the rafters of the auditorium vibrating nonetheless.
Costume designer Roth, who doesn’t get around to musicals too often, has created what appears to be hundreds of glittering outfits. Yeoman work is further executed by tireless set designer Santo Loquasto, sound designer Scott Lehrer (does he ever go wrong?) and lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, who know what to do when handed as complex a show as this one. Musical director Shelton Becton and arranger-orchestrator Daryl Waters rule the tuneful atmosphere.
So the visual and auditory delights offered in return for the price of a ticket are abundant. On the other hand, the script, as noted, remains insufficient compensation. Wolfe, as book writer, has taken up too much for Wolfe, as director, to shape with complete confidence.
The scenes of this Shuffle Along, announced via proscenium-top banner, give the impression that Wolfe is staging a revue with a connecting thread, including the halting progress to that 1921 opening night on 63rd Street made by Blake, Sissle, Miller and Lyles. Then, as Wolfe’s catch-as-catch-can Act II unfolds, the rest of the historical narrative is sketched in, well, sketchily. Oddly, Josephine Baker, who joined the chorus when she was 16, receive much attention.
There’s no missing Wolfe’s intention to address American racist attitudes here. He’s employing it as a mirror by which to venture, Lewis Carroll-like, down the racial rabbit hole of race. It’s a smart conceit. (When isn’t Wolfe super-smart?) It’s just that he hasn’t yet solidified his more serious concerns.
There is a comment in the script that when Shuffle Along materialized originally, black audiences could finally mingle with white audiences. Curiously, the audience at the performance I attended was almost entirely white. It was as if it was the Jazz Age still, as if I’d dropped into Harlem’s Cotton Club where black performers filled the stage but didn’t occupy the cabaret tables.
At the time of the original Shuffle Along, Miller and Lyles wore blackface, then not an unusual gesture, especially for the light-skinned. Today, of course, it’s shocking. For historical accuracy, Wolfe has both Stokes Mitchell and Porter follow the old, now-excoriated precedent. This may not be the first time it’s happened in recent Broadway history, but it’s bold and unforgettable.