Performing Arts: Theater
May 1, 2016
Yes we can! That’s the motto of a bubbling, historically significant musical “Shuffle Along” unearthed by director George C. Wolfe. The giddy “Shuffle Along” represents the first all black musical to hit Broadway in 1921. At the time, jazz music roared out of the South on the fingertips of W.C. Handy, Scott Joplin and the lips of Louis Armstrong. Enthralling American and European audiences, artists were scrambling to copy the syncopated rhythms, blues inflected melodies and snappy dances.

Originally, the book by F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles poked fun at politics. This version is more about the thrill of constructing a show despite the obstacles. The incomparable Audra McDonald as the abundantly gifted diva leads a stellar cast.

Willful personalities constantly on the verge of combustion scheme and write a showcase for era’s top Black talent. “Shuffle Along” floats on the music by Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry) and jazz pianist Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon).

In addition to teeming chorus of talented dancers and actors, two esteemed Broadway veterans lend heft to the parts of F. E. Miller (Brian Stokes Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (Billy Porter) the show’s bickering creators. Of course, every show needs a backer, and that’s where two-faced, bumbling Caucasian, Brooks Ashmanskas steps in.

Most of the hair curling show numbers land in the first act. Choreographer Savion Glover captures the low-to-the ground beats, mixing in soft shoe turns and early 20th century dances into the rhythmically ebullient choreography. There are hilarious chorus girl numbers, featuring woman of multiple shapes sporting short dresses popping in color by Ann Roth.

Now everyone knows that McDonald sings the notes out of every musical style imaginable, but her tapping skills were less well known. This lady knows how to “get down” while simultaneously retaining the mystical allure required of a lady in furs.

While Audra negotiates several octaves, Porter and Mitchell deliver their own brand of high-octane performances. In fact, there’s nearly an embarrassment of interpretive riches on the stage.

Along with the show’s success come cast changes because the European producers plucked African American stars with some frequency. This gives another knockout talent, Adrienne Warren an opportunity to portray cabaret stars Gertrude Saunders and Florence Mills.

Rising to the occasion, Santo Loquasto plunges into the era magnifying the excess and simplicity including a ruby red convertible to ferry the four men at the peak of their success.

Throughout the production, songs gather force like “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” “Love Will Find a Way” topped by the magical song and dance number “The Pennsylvania Graveyard Shuffle.” For this show-stopper, Glover converts his cast into a teeming train of one stop stands, picking off the chug-a-chug sounds and whistles while referencing the scores of black Pullman porters in films—most famously, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles.

After 504 performances of “Shuffle Along,” nerves begin to fray leading to the second act when partnerships fray, love affairs and futures dissemble. Bookended by two World Wars, the Jim Crow era and Great Migration, “Shuffle Along” proves that opportunity equals cultural milestones.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

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