Shuffle Along – Or The Making of The Musical Sensation of 1921 And All That Followed

An Appreciation

Pound for pound this musical showcases more talent than half the new productions on Broadway combined. Almost every superb black performer you might recall from recent years of theater and music is on this stage.The artistic team is crackerjack.

Shuffle Along

Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry

Critical voices have been raised in regard to the piece’s two hour forty minute running time to which I respond, yes, it could’ve been shorter without losing a whit of pith or entertainment value, but so what? Journalists and historians have also weighed in on George C. Wolfe’s decision to downplay such things as the application of blackface, on-the-road segregation, and theatrical naysayers. When important, of-the-time-author Carl Van Vechten denies the musical’s place in future collective memory, we realize a cultural response which is not otherwise emphasized.

As we see glimpses of blackface, exposition there seems missing. Otherwise, it’s a case of not being all things to all people.  (An attempt at rounding up history occurs with biographical epilogues.)

Shuffle Along

Brandon Victor Dixon and Audra McDonald

Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake met in 1915. As The Dixie Duo, they were the first negro performers to eschew blackface. The collaborators provided songs for the musical in question and respectively had long, successful, musical and theatrical careers. Producer/Performers F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles became friends as students and then a vaudeville comedy team. They both produced and performed in this 1921 show (here, in traditional blackface to which, one would have thought, their partners might’ve objected), afterwards mounting and writing others.

Sissle, Blake, Miller and Lyles encountered one another at an NAACP benefit where the vaudeville team performed a sketch called ‘The Mayor of Jimtown.’ Finding themselves likeminded, the four decided to turn it into a show about a small town election, creating the first all black musical to viably compete with Broadway productions.

Shuffle Along

Adrienne Warren, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Audra McDonald and The Ensemble

After a grueling, squabbling hand-to-mouth tour, Shuffle Along landed at an off the grid West 63rd Street Theater without an orchestra pit, where, to everyonelse’s surprise, it ran 500 performances. It wasn’t that its flimsy book or staging were innovative, but rather that this black cast and creative team showcased energy, ebullience, and talent as skilled as anything on 42nd Street. The landmark production nurtured young performers like Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, and Paul Robeson, revising expectations and opening the door to black revues outside of Harlem.

Brian Stokes Mitchell (F.E. Miller) not only returns to The Great White Way with bankable, resonant vocals and signature style, he tap dances! Billy Porter (Aubrey Lyles), last seen cavorting in Kinky Boots, sings, dances, displays terrific comic flair without regressing into parody and, turning serious at the last, brings it home.

Shuffle Along

            Joshua Henry, Brandon Victor Dixon, Billy Porter, Brian Stokes Mitchell,                   Richard Riaz Yoder

Brandon Victor Dixon of the musical Motown, is utterly charming as the pixilated, two-timing Eubie Blake. Dixon taps, sings, and acts with naturalness that allows us to excuse the character’s weaknesses much as Lottie does during their on again/off again affair. His reaction to a mouse is priceless. Joshua Henry (Noble Sissle), who was unequivocally great in The Scottsboro Boys, here lightens up without losing an iota of authenticity or grace. And oh, that voice!

Adrienne Warren (Gertrude Saunders/Florence Mills) delivers a sassy performance with bright-eyed finesse and nimble footwork while veteran Brooks Ashmanskas plays a slew of roles, each with pitch perfect comic timing and precision dancing he makes look ridiculously easy.

Shuffle Along

Audra McDonald

As to the visibly pregnant Audra McDonald (go quickly lest you miss her!), she’s simply magnificent. Fully inhabiting Lottie Gee who was herself, a regal cut above the environment in which she achieved fame, the artist’s vocals, acting, and yes, tap dancing, are a veritable joy to behold.

Daryl Waters’s Music Supervision, Arrangements & Orchestrations are immensely clear and rich. (Sound Design-Scott Lehrer) Choreography by Savion Glover is exuberant, loose-limbed, gorgeously synchronized, and feels fresh, though its underpinnings reflect the era. Company numbers are a master class. The visual creative team excels with Ann Roth’s Costumes and Mia M. Neal’s Hair Design original, yet accurate stand-outs.

Shuffle Along

Adrienne Warren and The Ensemble

If you’re anything of a theater-goer, you know there’s been a fracas about whether the musical is a revival or an original, the latter putting it in competition for the juggernaut called Hamilton. In the opinion of this journalist, book writer George C. Wolfe’s framing device as indicated in the show’s subtitle, should have set it firmly in the latter category.  Though there are lots of recreated numbers, the story of its artistic collaboration provides vertebrae. Alas, my view is among a minority.

Photos by Julieta Cervantes
Opening: The Ensemble

Shuffle Along
Or The Making of The Musical Sensation of 1921 And All That Followed
Music and Lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake
Original Book by F.E. Miller and Aubry Lyles
Book by George C. Wolfe
Directed by George C. Wolfe
The Music Box Theater
239 West 45th Street

About Alix Cohen (1312 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine 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.