By Lauren Yarger
How odd that it should be one of the last shows of the season before I had a winner for the answer to the question I often get, “So what have you seen this year that you loved?” And odder still, that it should be Shuffle Along Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed which, truth be told, I had heard nothing good about in previews. That the show was too long and a mess were recurring refrains, so imagine my surprise when, after a postponed opening (the show missed the cutoff this season for the Outer Critics Awards), I found myself in delighted rapture at the musical explosion of excitement on the Music Box Theatre stage.
In Shuffle Along, we have a chance to see history in the making, not just once, but twice. The Broadway show starring Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Bully Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry (an historical lineup of amazing talent if I ever have seen one) is the story of another musical, Shuffle Along, with music and lyrics by the legendary Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake.
In 1921, the show broke new ground for musical theater and launched the careers of African-American stars Josephine Baker and Florence Mills and others and helped others, like Lottie Gee (McDonald) stay employed. The song team of Eubie Blake (Dixon) and Noble Sissle (Henry) collaborated with Flournoy Miller (Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (Porter) to write the musical, which was the next step for the Vaudeville musicians, and proved that audiences would pay to see shows featuring an African-American love story.
Despite having to take the show on tour without always being able to pay its cast and crew, Shuffle Along landed at the 63rd Street Theater and became a sensation, wowing the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Al Jolson, Fanny Brice and others. President Harry S. Truman even used its tune, “I’m Just Wild About Harry” as his campaign theme. A replica program for the original production is inserted into the show’s Playbill to complete the play-within-a-play theme.
The book by George C. Wolfe, who also directs, follows the creation and staging of the original show a well as the ups and downs in the relationships. Savion Glover adds thundering, exciting, show-stopping choreography (the opening number will blow you out of your seat and probably will knock Hamilton out of the running at least in one category at the Tonys this year) and Ann Roth provides glittering, colorful costumes to complete a beautiful picture on Santo Loquasto’s set.
McDonald’s perfect delivery brings Lottie’s line a lot of laughs and she’s earning Pregnant Woman of the Year merits tapping up a storm every performance (she will be out on maternity leave beginning July 24 and though Fall 2016 when Grammy Award winner Rhiannon Giddens will make her Broadway debut in the role.) And it’s always a treat to hear Mitchell, Dixon and Henry sing (can Henry just be in every musical, please? His voice is intoxicating). You will recognize some of the tunes like “Love will Find a Way,” “Honeysuckle Time” and “Ain’t It a Shame” Music Directed by Shelton Becton and Supervised, Arranged and Orchestrated by Daryl Waters.
Shuffle Along plays at the Music Box Theatre, 230 W 45th St., NYC. Performances are Tuesday and Thursday at 7 pm; Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets currently on sale through Oct. 9 are $69-$169: shufflealongbroadway.com; 212-239-6200.
Brooks Ashmanskas, Adrienne Warren, Amber Iman, Phillip Attmore, Alexandria Bradley, Darlesia Cearcy, Darius de Haas, C.K. Edwards, Leo Ash Evens, Afra Hines, Curtis Holland, Jason Holley, Adrienne Howard, Lee Howard, Kendrick Jones, Lisa LaTouche, Alicia Lundgren, JC Montgomery, Erin N. Moore, Janelle Neal, Brittany Parks, Arbender Robinson, Karissa Royster, Britton Smith, Zurin Villanueva, Christian Dante White, Joseph Wiggan, Pamela Yasutake and Richard Riaz Yoder.
Wig and Hair Design by Mia M. Neal , Lighting Design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, Sound Design by Scott Lehrer