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New York City Theater

"Shuffle Along"
Music Box Theater

Ok, it’s not perfect. Its background is more polished than its foreground, its plot more intellectual than emotional. But “’Shuffle Along’ Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed” is bursting with energy and features not only the superlative Audra McDonald heading a cast to die for but thrilling, pile-driving tap dancing choreographed by Savion Glover.

The original 1921 “Shuffle Along” was not only a pioneer musical comedy but the first written, directed and performed by African-Americans, telling a story that went beyond stereotypical minstrel shows. Here was a black couple showing their love in public and interacting with a community of black heroes as well as villains. Its jazz score would influence no less a composer than George Gershwin.

Writer/director George C. Wolfe’s take on the original is both history lesson and grand entertainment. The idea for the 1921 “Shuffle Along” began when a pair of vaudevillians, Flourney Eakin (F. E.) Miller and Aubrey Lyles, met lyricist Noble Sissle and composer Eubie Blake. Deciding to collaborate, they took an old sketch, “The Mayor of Jimtown,” and built a show involving small-town corruption and redemption.

It wasn’t a smooth ride. Money was hard to come by, a Broadway theater even harder, forcing them to perform at the available 63rd Street Music Hall, way uptown from the theater district. But the show was a hit, popularizing songs such as “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” “Love Will Find a Way” and “Daddy, Won’t You Please Come Home.”

Wolfe does better with backstage preparations and onstage performances than with the illicit affair between glamorous leading lady Lottie Gee (McDonald) and married pianist / composer Blake (an engaging Brandon Victor Dixon). The relationship seems tacked on while Wolfe’s real purpose lies, paradoxically, in the second, more strident and expository “all that followed” half. After the usual travails of putting on a show, comes the aftermath with its envy and outrage that elements of “Shuffle Along” were “appropriated” by white artists and the show itself was all but forgotten.

The only whites we see, in fact, are all played by the zany Brooks Ashmanskas, representing the forces allied against the creators, climaxing in the sardonic “They’ll Never Remember You.” Wolfe is out not only to prove that prediction false but indict the skewed history of the American theater.

Besides the undeniable luminosity of Dixon and McDonald (who here adds tap dancing to her formidable treasure chest of talents), Brian Stokes Mitchell is a charming Miller, Billy Porter a distracted Lyles, Joshua Henry an irritable Sissle, and Adrienne Warren superb as both Gertrude Saunders and star-in-the making Florence Mills. The show looks sensational: Santo Loquasto’s sets, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting, Ann Roth’s spiffy costumes and Scott Lehrer’s sound design are first rate.

Coincidentally, another show-within-a-show opened in New York around the same time. That’s Paula Vogel’s terrific “Indecent” which reveals the consequences attached to the controversial play, “God of Vengeance.” It’s less didactic than “Shuffle Along,” which sometimes relies on straight-out narration, but it shares knowledge that art nourishes the seeds of change.

--David A. Rosenberg
May 25, 2016

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