Review: Broadway's new 'Shuffle Along' celebrates a past hit

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Posted: Apr 28, 2016 8:02 PM
Review: Broadway's new 'Shuffle Along' celebrates a past hit

NEW YORK (AP) — The last Broadway show to open this season has a mouthful of a name and an astonishing array of stars.

"Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed" is, like its title suggests, a genre-jumping show, something not comfortable in one box. It's not a review or revival. It's more like a history lesson that will blow you away.

Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry star in the show, all dancing to Savion Glover's choreography. Each of these men is worthy of having their own show. Putting them together is insane. Oh, and Audra McDonald just happens to be in it, too.

The show is a celebration of an unlikely hit on Broadway 95 years ago — "Shuffle Along," with music and lyrics by noted composers Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, and a story by F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles. It gave the world the songs "(I'm Just) Wild About Harry," ''In Honeysuckle Time" and "Shuffle Along."

It broke many barriers — it had Broadway's first jazz score, it was one of the first musicals to be written, directed and performed by African-Americans and it had the first kiss onstage between black performers.

Instead of reviving the show as it was in 1921, director and writer George C. Wolfe has ingeniously kept much of the music but reframed it as a musical about the making of a musical. In the first act, we follow the show from backstage as it tours and matures, before arriving in New York already $18,000 in debt.

There is a bit of bloat, too much exposition and with five stars who each need a backstory, the plot sometimes slows, but Wolfe nicely captures the timeless craziness of creation and the glory days of a special show.

Mitchell plays Miller, Porter plays Lyles, Henry plays Sissle and Dixon plays Blake. McDonald plays the singer Lottie Gee, and Adrienne Warren is superb as both Gertrude Saunders and Florence Mills, the woman who replaced Saunders in the show.

The first half echoes the frantic nature of putting on a new show as personalities clash, sacrifices are made and egos are tested — all against an ever-present backdrop of racial discrimination.

"Our time has come to glow in the light," Sissle says.

Some visual masterstrokes include the ensemble recreating a moving train for "Pennsylvania Graveyard Shuffle" and watching McDonald vamp it up for "Daddy, Won't You Please Come Home." Ann Roth's costumes are fabulous.

Act 1 ends with "Shuffle Along" beating the odds to become a wild hit, running more than 500 performances and attracting celebrities to its audience. Where do you go after that? Act 2 is all about the fall.

The second half switches focus and mood, slowing down to deal with the fallout. As anyone who loves VH1's "Behind the Music" series will tell you, success can be pretty terrible to stability.

The composing team fights with the writing team. Each then have internecine squabbles. (Porter turns it into an astonishing "Low Down Blues"). Performers get lured away, affairs get messier. That initial magic of creation is hard to replicate. Plus, history has wiped away the memory of "Shuffle Along" so much that many of the performers in the new show had little idea about it.

"They won't remember 'Shuffle Along,'" teases the actor Brooks Ashmanskas, who plays every white guy in the show, from a producer to a nasty security guard. "And they won't remember you."

He's wrong, thanks to Wolfe and a cast who thankfully refused to let that happen.

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Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits