There is so much talent on stage at the Music Box that it’s difficult to know where to begin giving credit where its due. The first elements that deserve “Original! Exciting! Broadway at its best!” are the look of the piece as a whole — and that means George C. Wolfe’s vigorous direction, Savion Glover’s original ways with tap as a dance form, Santo Loquasto’s always eye-catching sets, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhower’s crisp and effective lighting, and Ann Roth’s colorful and character defining costumes. Well, why not? That’s a full load of theatre professionals, all working at the top of their form.
As for the material, Mr. Wolfe does double work as book writer for this accurately termed “new musical” even though it uses the original score in ways that are fresh in attempting to tell a story of how Shuffle Along became the surprise hit of the 1921 season when it first appeared, in a theatre out of the theatre district, way uptown in a converted theatre on 63rd Street, where it managed a run of 484 performances. It’s still called by the original title, but it has a tag: “Or the making of the musical sensation of 1921 and all that followed.” The music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake are saved by the glorious staging of “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” which starts small with a solo, and ends with the full company blowing the roof off.
For some reason, the songs are not listed in the program, but there are a few that are certainly stage-worthy, but are today unknown. “Love Will Find A Way,” “Honeysuckle Time,” “I’m Just Simply Full of Jazz,” and the title song may not match “I’m Just Wild About Harry” as classics, but they entertain and allow these talented people to shine.
A remarkable piece called “They Won’t Remember You,” which was not in the original production, gives Brooks Ashmanskas (seen only a season ago in Something Rotten!) an opportunity to take the stage and turn in a star-making turn. All through the show he’s played “everyone else” (a railroad president, famous celebrities, international emcees, an agent, and more) with the best timing in the world; and he can tap dance up a storm, which makes him a major contributor to the fun.
Adrienne Warren has the juicy assignment of playing Gertrude Saunders (an actress who quits the show early on) as well as Florence Mills who replaced her. Mills ultimately became the bigger star, but Ms. Warren plays both ladies with consummate skill.
There are five marvelous actors starred above the title. At my matinee Audra McDonald and Billy Porter were out, but Brian Stokes Mitchell. Joshua Henry, and Brian Victor Dixon were on hand to delight as F.E. Miller (the co-book writer of the 1921 production), Noble Sissle, and Eubie Blake, who wrote the music and lyrics.
Ensemble members Darlesia Cearcy and Arbender Robinson stepped in for McDonald and Porter, and both were clearly in command. Of course the stars bring on stage with them memories of their past work as well as the star quality that earned them top billing, and I’m so sorry to have missed them in this, but I must compliment the replacements for far more than merely keeping the curtain up.
Mr. Mitchell, whose work in Man of La Mancha and Kiss Me, Kate made him a leading man of the highest order, has to be enjoying this much lighter assignment, one in which he gets to dance, fume and fuss, adding luster and appeal. Messrs. Henry and Dixon were both dazzling as the team that broke the color barriers with their highly original score, here dazzlingly returned to us in completely new wrappings.
Early in the first act, George Wolfe’s direction seemed to be going for speed and energy, throwing our way a bit too much of both. As book writer he felt the need to have the four writers of the show tell us much of the exposition, but it was done briefly and neatly. And with a handful of principal characters and a complicated tale to tell, I assume he felt the device necessary. And as the story unfolded, as we learned more about the difficulties in getting this piece launched, (particularly one that broke through the color barrier in 1921 that had until then limited black artists on Broadway to blackface entertaining or household servants) it began to involve and engaged me because of the ingenuity with which it was staged and the talent of its splendid company.
I think you’ll have a fine time at Shuffle Along.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including an intermission.
Shuffle Along is playing through July 24, 2016, at the Music Box Theatre – 239 West 45th Street, in New York City. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239 -6200, go to the box office, or purchase them online.