Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Shuffle Along or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed ****

There is an embarrassment of riches onstage at The Music Box in this tribute to the first all-black musical to reach Broadway. Brian Stokes Mitchell plays the genteel F.E. Miller and Billy Porter is Aubrey Lyles, his abrasive partner in a blackface vaudeville team who suggested expanding one of their skits into a musical. Joshua Henry is lyricist Noble Sissle and Brandon Victor Dixon is composer-pianist Eubie Blake, the pair who join them in this enterprise. Audra McDonald is Lottie Gee, star of the new show. In addition to their usual talents of acting and singing, the five leads join the fantastic dancers in performing Savion Glover’s brilliant tap choreography. Mitchell, whom I have found overbearing in recent years, manages to submerge his ego into the role with fine results. McDonald, as always, is a phenomenon; it is inconceivable that she was not Tony-nominated. Dixon and Porter are both fine. Adrienne Warren is a knockout both as the show’s second female Gertrude Saunders and as her successor Florence Mills. Brooks Ashmanskas, the sole Caucasian onstage, is a delight playing several of the men who placed obstacles in the production’s path. The abundant talent of the performers is equalled by the superb sets by Santo Loquasto, the riotous costumes by Ann Roth, the evocative lighting by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhower and the wonderful arrangements and orchestrations by Daryl Waters. Director George C. Wolfe keeps the show moving energetically. It is the book, also by Wolfe, that I found wanting. The story of mounting a show against all obstacles seems cliched, even with racial prejudice added to the list of problems. With five main protagonists, there is too little time to develop any of them very deeply. Perhaps the book should have focused on Lottie, especially her long affair with the married Blake and her sacrifice of career advancement for him. I don’t see how the show could possibly have been considered a revival because Wolfe tosses out virtually the entire book of the 1921 show. Only one song “(I’m Just) Wild about Harry” is presented in its original context. The second act, which chronicles the fading fortunes of those involved with the show and the show itself is more told than shown. At times I felt I was watching an illustrated history lesson. Nevertheless, you won’t find more talent on one stage anywhere else on Broadway. With all the book’s flaws, the story represents an important piece of theater history and black history that should not be forgotten. Sadly the audience was practically all-white. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes. NOTE: Avoid seats in the first few rows if you want to see the dancers’ feet.

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