Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical ...

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Photo: Julieta Cervantes Review
Like one of those complicated presents your grandmother might buy you at Christmas, George C. Wolfe’s “Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” now at the Music Box Theatre, is a history lesson wrapped in a vivid theatrical entertainment wrapped in a rebuke. And like those holiday gifts, it may be too much, but you most definitely don’t want to live without it!

The show’s purpose, on its surface, is fairly straightforward: to remind us about the long-forgotten 1921 Broadway musical “Shuffle Along,” which overcame tremendous odds become the first show that integrated a black love story onstage and instead of inspiring lynching inspired $2.50 ticket prices and SRO crowds.

In its 75-minute first act, Wolfe tells and shows us (not always subtly) about this hard-fought journey in a myriad of ways. First, he has its history recounted by its four main creators, the writer-producers E.F. Miller (a suitably starchy Brian Stokes Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (the fiery, flamboyant Billy Porter, who could well earn a second Tony Award just for his searing rendition of “Low Down Blues”), and the songwriters, the arrogant Noble Sissle (a fine if underused Joshua Henry) and the now-legendary composer Eubie Blake (the effortlessly charming Brandon Victor Dixon).

Second, and far more successfully, he stunningly re-creates numbers from the show onstage and backstage, with the invaluable help of the magnificent tap choreography of Savion Glover, the glorious costumes of Ann Roth, and, above all, the energetic, extraordinary singing-and-dancing ensemble (with a special shout-out to the dazzling Adrienne Warren as saucy soubrette Gertrude Saunders and her eventual replacement, the more demure Florence Mills,

Above all, naturally, Wolfe delivers the peerless Audra McDonald as the show’s somewhat imperious star (and Blake’s eventual mistress), Lottie Gee. One of the greatest wonders of this “Shuffle” is how it reminds us – or reveals to some of us – that McDonald can be a brilliant comic and an energetic dancer, along with a singer of extraordinary range who can soar, scat, and, yes, still break our hearts. (If you’re not smiling broadly as she changes the rhythm of the Act I finale, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” or sniffling along to her final number, “Memories of You,” you’re not human.)

The show’s second act fares slightly less well, as it gives us more of a paint-by-numbers recap of the fates of these characters, both right after “Shuffle Along” as they go their separate ways, and in later years. Wolfe also uses the act to settle scores about the wrongs inflected on these performers and the original “Shuffle Along,” some of which are stingingly real and others which simply seem petty or inflated.

And like that aforementioned present, it’s all topped by a bow: a quasi-epilogue, highlighted by “They Won't Remember You” (sung to perfection by the versatile Brooks Ashmankas, who cleverly portrays every white character in the show), in which the company is told in no certain terms that no one in the future will remember them or their show. Well, we do now, thanks to this unexpected present that caps the 2015-2016 theatrical season. Shuffle along to the Music Box and get tickets while they last.
By Brian Scott Lipton

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Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon, Joshua Henry, Brooks Ashmanskas, Felicia Boswell, Amber Iman, Adrienne Warren, Phillip Attmore, Darius de Haas, C.K. Edwards, Afra Hines, Curtis Holland, Adrienne Howard, Kendrick Jones, Lisa LaTouche, Alicia Lundgren, J.C. Montgomery, Erin N. Moore, Janelle Neal, Brittany Parks, Arbender Robinson, Karissa Royster, Britton Smith, Zurin Villanueva, Christian Dante White, J.L. Williams, Pamela Yasutake, Richard Riaz Yoder

Open/Close Dates
Opening 4/28/2016
Closing 7/24/2016

Preview Open/ Preview Close Dates
Preview Opening 3/15/2016
Closing Open-ended

Box Office

Theatre Info
Music Box Theatre
239 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036