André De Shields:Old Dawg; New Tricks – Marvelous!

Actor/director/choreographer André De Shields began his performing life in the cast of the 1969 Chicago production of Hair. Most recently, he won the 2019 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Hadestown) and 2020’s Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Performance.

Old Dawg; New Tricks is an autobiographical concert about De Shields formative development. The piece emerges in his own poetic, alliterative script. Songs written by the artist mix with classic rock, blues and some of the coolest never-break-a-sweat dancing in the business.

The artist speaks eloquently, as if from a pulpit. Words morph into song with the signature “gimme a beat.” Frieda Williams and Marlene Danielle offer solo vocals as well as masterfully arranged back-up lyrics and scat.

“Let the Good Times Roll!” (Sam Theard/Fleecie Moore) opens this evening with energy and optimism. De Shields parades the stage with style; slide, hips, nods and turns. Excerpts of songs capture his generation:  …Wind me up. Beep, beep. Ah toot, toot… We gonna rock tonight, we gonna boom shacka lacka…Little Bitty Pretty One…(War, huh) Yeah!/(What is it good for?) Absolutely nothing. uhuh…Blue Moon…Proud Mary…Rockin’ Robin…Wake up little Susie/wake up… Ba ba ba ba Barbara Ann…I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still…Mashed potatoes, baby, one two three…Inexplicably, one succeeds another with fluency. Turning his back, he intermittently drinks a glass of water in slow motion as we applaud. This is a showman.

“Once upon a time in a kingdom far away called Baltimore…” Ten siblings and his parents lived on his parents’ deferred dreams. “He gorged himself so much (on these dreams), they filled what became his jelly belly…It wasn’t that they didn’t love us, it’s just they loved their dreams more…”

“Jelly’s dream was not deferred. He wanted to get out of Baltimore to higher ground…I had a mother that could dance, a mother who could sing, and sisters who could shock you when they shook their thing…but all I did was tut, tut, tut ‘cause I could smile and make their day… “Harlem” (André De Shields/Langston Hughes) leads into “Smile” (André De Shields).

“That takes care of my mother, let’s talk about my father. The Negro man at the turn of the century had a rough battle to flight…mine was gone at fifty…until he could find any of his Seagram 7 thoughts…With shameless mortification, he called me ‘Mr. Fancy Dan.’ This is a cautionary song…” precedes Norman Whitfield/Barret Strong’s “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and Luther Van Dross/Richard Marx’ rueful “Dance With My Father.” 

De Shields is openly gay. “Deep down in my black feminist core, I have become my mother. Look at me. I have my mother’s hair, feet, knees, and style, but if you really want to see my mother, look in Jelly’s eyes…”

Songs flow. We hear childhood memories, “a low down bucket blues,” and a Bobby- McFerrin-like scat contest with Williams. Chicago was his next stop. The move coincided with 1979’s sexual revolution and the AIDS plague. “Tick-tock, time… we should’ve known, we should’ve guessed, but we didn’t…”

Julio was the first to go One day he caught a bug he couldn’t shake, rattle, or roll… No obits were ever written. Julio was #1… “I’m a Walking Time Bomb” (Dennis Andreopolis) is an economically lyrical, victim list song as powerful as speeches by playwright/activists Larry Kramer or Terrance McNally. …and when I get through, you’ll be a time bomb too.

Frieda Williams, André De Shields, Marlene Danielle

At the last, a woman’s name appears on the AIDS victim list. “…angry at the big black man she loved while livin’ and cursed while dyin’…Why didn’t he tell me he was gay? He wasn’t. Then, how did he get it? The same way we all get it – ignorance, silence, and it’s free.” Gospel sound pervades. De Shields’ tale is not unfamiliar; show content, construction, and performance make it seem fresh.

The artist exits, then, elaborately announced, returns as a red robed preacher, a large, rhinestone butterfly hanging around his neck. (Earlier ensemble consists of a bespoke, metallic gold suit with white satin lapels, black and silver vest, red shirt, and pearlized boots. The band wears sequin jackets in red, white, silver or teal blue; the ladies, black with sequined coats.)

Addressing a congregation of every specified religion imaginable, De Shields preaches love and understanding. He is, he declares, “Standing in The Need of Love” (Dennis Andreopolis) Except – If it’s true what they say/If my love is gone for good/They can take this heart away/They can take this flesh and blood…(“If It’s True What They Say” – Anais Mitchell from Hadestown) Songs are so specific, so much in De Shields’ own voice, it’s as if they were written for this show.

“Man in The Mirror” (Glen Ballard/Siedah Garrett) takes responsibility: I’m starting with the man in the mirror/I’m asking him to change his ways… “L-O-V-E” (André De Shields) arrives as punctuation. “Ok, it’s time for us to bounce.” The audience rises. The experience is worthy.

The “old dawg,” we’re told, is Shields; “new tricks” his superb back-up duo.

Photos by Kevin Yatarola. 

Lincoln Center’s American Songbook presents
André De Shields: Old Dawg; New Tricks
Liam Robinson-Piano/Conductor/Vocal Arrangements
Larry Spivak & Todd Sickafoose – Orchestrators
TheRhinestoneRockStarBoogieWoogieDollBabies (as written in program):
Frieda Williams and Marlene Danielle
The Appel Room- Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall
January 29, 2020
American Songbook

About Alix Cohen (721 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.