CurtainUp
The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings


A CurtainUp Review
Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.

"June 24, 2016 Update:
A big change in Audra McDonald's Latest Plans For Taking a 3-months hiatus from the show (June 21st to Sept. 25th) in order to taker her most recent of 6 Tony winning shows, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill to London's West End.

Mother nature changed that plan with Audra expected to stay in the show until July 24th, and then take off until Fall for quite a different production: The birth of a baby! As Ms. McDonald put it Who knew that tap dancing during perimenopause could lead to pregnancy? Will (husband Will Swenson) and I are completely surprised—and elated—to be expecting a new addition to our family.

But yet another less cherful change of plans, this time courtesy of the producers who felt the show couldn't survive months without its super star as Lottie Gee. And so. . .as of July 24th, it will not only be no Aura, but no show!.

Now, I'm just wild about Harry
And Harry's wild about me
The heavenly blisses of his kisses
Fills me with ecstasy

Say now, he's sweet just like chocolate candy
Or like the honey from a bee
Oh, I'm just wild about Harry
And he's just wild about me
— Lyric from the song that, unlike the how it was in, was long remembered after Shuffle Along's hit run at the 63rd Street Music Hall . . .especially after Harry S. Truman selected it as his presidential campaign song, causing some fellow Democrats to joke "I'm just mild about Harry."

Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.
Audra McDonald as Lottie Gee (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)
The 90-minute long first act of Shuffle Along is a sensationally entertaining homage to the pioneering but mostly forgotten first musical created as well as performed by all-black talent. George C. Wolfe's combination of puttiing-on-a-show story and history lesson about the ground-breaking contributions of the Shuffle Along team to musical theater has so many riches that it's easy to forgive its somewhat disappointing execution of the "All That Followed" second act.

Shuffle Along was an against-all odds success story that's here narrated by the show's wonderfully cast creators — Vaudevillians F.E. Miller (Brian Stokes Mitchell, the chief narrator) and Aubrey Lyles (Billy Porter), composer/pianist Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon) and lyricist Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry). The four men managed to overcome the existing limitations faced by African-American performers, such as being confined to appearing only in sketches within all-white shows and never as lovers.

It's an ambitious homage exuberantly directed by Mr. Wolfe, brilliantly choreographed by Savion Glover. With a large, to-die-for top to bottom cast, it's likely to once again be the breezy crowd pleaser it was when it premiered at the 63rd Street Music Hall in 1921.

While the show would have had a better shot at a Tony for Best Musical Revival if not competing against the unbeatable Hamilton, the Tony committee was right to keep it within the new musical category. The Shuffle Along now at the Music Box is not really a replay of the 1921 show presented at the 63rd Music Hall in 1921. It does include most of the Sissle and Blake but it also features additions from their catalogue to make the already full course musical menu even fuller. As for the book, elements of the original by Miller and Lyles are indeed present. However, the program rightly credits Wolfe next to them for his spin on the book which focuses on the richly song and dance punctuated journey to the show's ground-breaking Broadway success

Not giving audiences a chance to see what the people who flocked to the show almost a century ago may seem to go counter to Mr. Wolfe's mission of rescuing Shuffle Along from the dust bin of found and lost again treasures. But this isn't the Mint Theater or one of the other companies dedicated to authentically re-mounting lost theatrical treasures. But then, the plot and musical numbers of the original aren't all that worth a second look and the homage here is essentially to what this talented and determined quartet did to break down barriers open to their race.

Since every musical needs a romance and one of those barriers applied to allowing African-Americans to be central romantic figures, the Wolfe book smartly includes an invented love affair between Eubie Blake and the show's leading lady, Lottie Gee and thus creates a star opening for Tony and other award magnet Audra McDonald. And McDonald doesn't disappoint! She thrills and charms with song after song (including the big standards "Love Will Find a Way" and "I'm Just Wild About Harry"). She's also no slouch when it comes to fully inhabiting a character and has expert comic timing. And, yes, she's a fine tapper.

Naturally, the well-known, prestigious names above the program title lend ticket selling luster to this production. As importantly, it's richly embroidered by the ensemble's terrific singing and dancing as the Harmony Kings, the Jazz Jasmines, the Dancin'Boys and the Jimtown Flappers. Not to be overlooked are two outstanding divas besides McDonald— Amber Iman as Eva and Mattie Wiles and Adrienne Warren as Gertrude Saunders and Florence Mills. Brooks Ashmanskas admirably pops up throughout as a cornucopia of Caucasian characters.

Santo Loquasto's scenery begins with a simple ghost light and piano image that bursts into a scintillating production number and flows easily into other settings. One of the more razzle dazzle scenic flourishes has the four partners demonstrate their sucess by climbing into a chauffeur driven shiny red convertible. A permanent overhead frame identifies what each musical number is about, which probably accounts for the decision not to include the usual song list in the program. (A list is, however, included at the end of the production notes for your convenience).

Ann Roth's costumes for everyone are knockouts and lighting designers Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer have outdone themselves imbuing the dance numbers with atmosphere. Savion Glover's choreography deserves an extra shoutout for the way it demonstrates the sophistication and expressive range of tap dancing. If I might cite a favorite among the many show stopping, foot tapping numbers, it was "The Pennsylvania Graveyard Shuffle," a tap ballet as the game dancers demonstrate their keep going spirit despite the company's financial difficulties and a series of energy draining one-night performances.

The second act's segue into a lecture-like format makes the "all that followed" part of the story not quite as exhilarating the longer first act. The sum-up about what happened to everyone connected with the show, might have avoided even this quibble if split up using part of it to introduce the "Making Of" as a flashback. That said, Shuffle Along is a most enjoyable, invigorating new look at a savory and worth thinking about slice of musical history.






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PRODUCTION NOTES
Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.
Music Box Theater 239 W. 45th St. 212/239-6200
New book and direction by George C. Wolfe
Original jazz music and lyrics by the vaudevillians Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake
/choreography by Savion Glover.
Cast: Audra McDonald (Lottie Gee), Brian Stokes Mitchell (F.E. Miller), Billy Porter (Aubrey Lyles), Brandon Victor Dixon (Eubie Blake), Joshua Henry (Noble Sissle), Brooks Ashmanskas (Sam,Izzy,Carlo,Mr. Broadway,Railroad President,Famous Celebrities,International Emcees), Amber Iman (Eva,Mattie Wilke), Adrienne Warren (Gertrude Saunders,Florence Mills)
Following are main ensemble roles: Phillip Attmore (William Grant Still, Dancin' Boy,Baker Boy), Darius de Haas J.C. Montgomery, Arbender Robinson (Harmony Kings), Afra Hines, Adrienne Howard Lisa LaTouche, Erin N. Moore, Janelle Neal, Brittany Parks, Karissa Royster, Pamela Yasutake (Jazz Jasmines), Curtis Holland Philliip Attmore, Curtis Holland, Kendrick Jones, Joseph Wiggan, Richard Riaz Yoda (Dancin' Boys), Lisa LaTouche, Brittany Parks, Karissa Royster, Pamela Yasutake (Jimtown Flappers)
Sets: Santo Loquasto
Costumes: Ann Roth
Sound: Scott Lehrer
Lights: Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer
Stage Manager: Lisa Dawn Cave
Hair Design: Mia M. Neal
Musical Supervision, arrangements and Orchestrations: Daryl L. Waters
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Musical Director: Shelton Becton
Stage Manager: Lisa Dawn Cave
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, 1 intermission
Music Box Theatre 239 West 45th Street
From 3/15/16; opening 4/28/16; closing 7/24/16
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 4/30/16 press matinee

Songs and who performs them (not listed in program)
Act One: Broadway Blues / Company; Affectionate Dan / Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake; Sellin' the Show / Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles; Introducing Sam / Sam, Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles; Makin' a Show/ Company; I'm Simply Full of Jazz /Gertrude Saunders and Jimtown Flappers; Honeysuckle Time / Lottie Gee and Eubie Blake; Swing Along /F.E. Miller and Company; Campaign Songs / Company; Bandana Days /Jazz Jasmines; Love Will Find a Way /Lottie Gee; If You've Never Been Vamped by a Brownskin/ Harmony Kings; You Got to Git the Gittin' While the Gittin's Good / Noble Sissle and Noble's Shadows; Ain't It a Shame /Company; Pennsylvania Graveyard Shuffle / Dancin' Kids; Daddy, Won't You Please Come Home /Lottie Gee; (I'm Just) Wild About Harry / Lottie Gee, Gertrude Saunders and Li'l Baby C; Act One Finale/ Company

Act Two: Dance Around the One /Dancin' Kids and Harmony Kings; Shuffle Along /Lottie Gee and Dancing Waiters; Struttin' / Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles; I'm Cravin' That Kind of Love / Florence Mills and Lottie Gee; Till Georgie Took 'Em Away/ Harmony Kings and William GrantStill; The Broadway- Buzz / Izzy and Company; Rang Tang/Chocolate Dandies / Dancin' Kids; It's Getting Dark on Old Broadway/ Mr. Broadway and Mr. Broadway's Girls; That Comedy Chorus Girl Freda and Baker Boys ; Uptown Noir /Harmony Kings; You're Lucky to Me / Lottie Gee and Eubie Blake; Low Down Blues / Aubrey Lyles; Shuffle Along (Reprise)/ F.E. Miller; Memories of You / Lottie Gee; The Original Broadway Rag /Carlo and Company; Shuffle Off /Florence Mills, Lottie Gee, F.E. Miller, Aubrey Lyles, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle


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