Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed

Review by Dom O'Hanlon
2 June 2016

'Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed' may not have the most catchy title of the current Broadway season but is certainly holding its own against a number of popular big-hitters and the obvious domination of 'Hamilton.' Whereas Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hop infused American history lesson has broken boundaries for the musical form for the foreseeable future, Shuffle Along... tells a similar story of a breakout musical that held as much cultural significance some 95 years ago.

Featuring a score by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, this new musical focuses on the challenges of mounting the original production of Shuffle Along and its subsequent effects on Broadway as well as race relations within the performance industry. Director and book writer George C. Wolfe is no stranger to bringing difficult work to the commercial realm, and he is to be commended for his delivery and commitment to what certainly seems to be a labour of love for all involved.

It's a show that may be difficult to categorise and compare, but at times that becomes more of a virtue when viewed against the context of the current Broadway season. Like Sondheim and Lapine's 1984 Pulitzer Prize winning 'Sunday in the Park With George', the show takes a significant piece of art, and not only provides context and back story, but also delves into the world that followed its creation. Like Sunday..., the piece neatly divides between the acts, ending with the creation and Broadway première of Shuffle Along, and uses act two to explore 'all that followed', but runs the risk of dividing the show too cleanly between two stalls.

The greatest problem is its balance between showing and telling the audience. With so much context and ground to cover leading up to the creation of the musical and its subsequent development, narration is overused and quickly becomes tiresome. With so much front-facing narration momentum is lost instead of built or sustained, and you end up feeling lectured to about the project's virtues, which take a while to really settle and unfold. The historical and cultural checkpoints are covered somewhat obsequiously in the first act, but this attention to detail manages to come full circle in the second and provide necessary release, providing the audience remains firmly behind the narrative.

Book troubles aside, it is the staging that is the real jewel in the crown and raises the overall standard of the production to more than a simple history lesson. Savion Glover's choreography is a wonder to behold, and whilst it potentially misses the same political mark as his work on 'Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk,' it dazzles and charms in all the right places. The entire cast tap dances up a storm, along with some fine formation work and musical staging that manages to encompass multiple times and locations, utilising a fiercely drilled and enigmatic company of triple-threat performers.

Much has been discussed regarding the ensemble nature of the leading players in relation to their various 'snubs' at this year's Tony Awards, but it will surprise no one that leading lady Audra McDonald shines as 'Lottie Gee,' proving herself once again to be one of Broadway's leading lights and is by many counts the show's greatest asset. She fills the room upon entry, but remains the most generous of performers, joining in with the hoofing with the best of them and adding yet another string to her already brimming bow of talent. Billy Porter similarly delights as Aubrey Lyles, and is blessed with a second act show stopper to really allow his talent the space to fly. Joshua Henry and Brandon Victor Dixon as composers Sissle and Blake engage in much of the show's conflict and manage to paint the most three-dimensional portrait of all the finely sketched leading characters.

The score draws on the original source material in pleasing new arrangements by Daryl Waters and mixes the large ensemble moments against both narrative drive and emotional releases. "Love Will Find a Way" and "Memories of You" seem almost written for McDonald, closing down the stage to just a single spotlight as your hairs stand on end and you find yourself in an almost transcendent state of awe.

Whilst each character wants to be remembered for having achieved something important, the same can certainly be said of the creative team. Shuffle Along stands alone as being a vital and necessary addition to the Broadway season and provides audiences a strong mix of visual hedonism alongside a strong political and historical message. Whilst there's plenty to enjoy aside from McDonald, I would however advise a trip to see to the production before the six-time Tony Award-winner departs later this summer.

(Dom O'Hanlon)

"Tart and sweet, bubbly and flat, intoxicating and sobering concoction."
Ben Brantley for New York Times

"The new Broadway musical 'Shuffle Along' dazzles like no other show this season — but it also disappoints."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

"Above all, we can luxuriate in a breathtaking piece of showmanship, featuring more talent crowding a stage than pretty much any other Broadway show at present (and yes, that includes Hamilton)."
David Cote for Time Out New York

"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."
Mark Kennedy for Associated Press

"If the resulting historical reappraisal is more successful at charting the creative high than the deflating hangover that came after, the performances alone make it unmissable."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

"In his zeal to illustrate the full impact of this landmark production, helmer (and book writer) George C. Wolfe piles it on, stretching the show's baggy structure all out of shape. But an incoherent book seems a small price to pay for the joy of watching Audra McDonald cut loose."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - New York Daily News - Time Out - Associated Press - Hollywood Reporter - Variety

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