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Theatre in Review: Shuffle Along (Music Box Theatre)

Photo: Julieta Cervantes

The other night at the Music Box, the sound of tapping feet could be heard even before the curtain rose. Whether it was a last-minute run-through or a calculated effect, it conveyed a palpable excitement, a feeling that everyone involved couldn't wait until showtime to get down to business. And no wonder: Then the curtain rises, following the bluesiest vamp you've ever heard, on a stage populated by nothing but a ghost light and an invasion of triple threats, primed and ready to raise the roof. Wave upon wave of talent appears: five sizzling stars, a male vocal quartet proffering the creamiest of harmonies, and a hard-tapping company of dancers, ready with one explosive routine after another.

They also have quite a story to tell: Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921, and All That Followed chronicles the sometimes-triumphant, sometimes-gritty history of Shuffle Along, the first book musical to feature an all-black company and creative team. A sensation in its day, it is now, oddly, forgotten; a show that should have secured major careers for its creators and performers became, for most of them, a glittering waystation on the road to obscurity. The reasons for this are many and complex, and the show means to explain them all.

Moving at the pace of a triple-time step, the narrative fills us in on the show's creators: the comic team of F. E. Miller (the mature one, the peacemaker) and Aubrey Lyles (bellicose, imperious), who wrote the book, about political shenanigans surrounding the mayoral race of "Jimtown;" Noble Sissle, the tomcatting lyricist; and the composer, Eubie Blake, who, alone among them, would be rediscovered in his lifetime. Along for the ride is Lottie Gee, a popular singer tired of playing in rattletrap theatres and sleeping in sordid hotels, hoping to secure a prominent berth on Broadway for herself. Lottie has had men, thank you, as Noble finds out when she deflects his passes with the ease of a kitten batting around a toy mouse. But Eubie, his married status notwithstanding, tries the sincere approach, and soon he and Lottie are collaborating onstage and off.

It's a wild ride as the creative team, chained to the chiseling, impecunious white producer John Cort, sets out on a seemingly endless pre-Broadway tour, racking up massive debts in the process. After the authors seize control of the production, they arrive in New York, landing a fleapit theatre on 63rd Street without decent dressing rooms or an orchestra pit. Following a snap renovation, Shuffle Along finally opens and is a massive success.

All of this covers the first act, which often plays like a revival of 42nd Street, sharpened with an edge of racial/political commentary. One of the more suspenseful moments features Lottie and her leading man, cast as Shuffle Along's lovers, being told to touch hands -- something heretofore verboten onstage for blacks -- while singing "Love Will Find a Way." This bit of business plays out in Baltimore for the first time, with no one certain that they won't incite an audience riot. Also, as the tour extends through practically any Pennsylvania city of any size -- John Cort fiddling while the cast burns -- a white railroad mogul takes a shine to the company and offers them all unlimited free rides: As he tells Miller and Lyles, Shuffle Along is the best n----r show he has ever seen. Miller is grateful for the gift; Lyles simmers over the insult.

The first act, punctuated by some of the most torrential tap sequences you've ever seen, has a relentless quality, as the company claws its way onto the Great White Way. (Savion Glover's choreography is brilliant, intricate, gasp-inducing, and, ultimately, a little fatiguing in its lack of variety.) The second act, however, is one long diminuendo, tracing the feuds, fallings-out, and lawsuits that follow Shuffle Along's tumultuous success. A plan for Miller, Lyles, Sissle, and Blake to reteam the show goes awry; their separate attempts at creating follow-up hits come to naught. Lottie gives up a European tour to stay with Eubie, who proves less loyal, heading off on the road without her. By the time Lyles, who has spent his way into near-bankruptcy, announces that he is decamping to Liberia, what might have been a groundbreaking event in American musical theatre is doomed to footnote status in theatre history books.

This new Shuffle Along breaks some ground of its own, harnessing its backstage saga to a broader canvas depicting the realities of racial apartheid in 1920s America and zeroing in on the complex lives of black entertainers of the period, many of whom did well as long they didn't breach social taboos. (As one scene details, even the creators of the toast-of-the-town black musical hit are denied the use of the front door at the Cotton Club.) The grievances are many and real; the indictment often trenchant. The trouble is, Shuffle Along has so many things on its mind -- personal conflicts, social ills, thwarted lives, the perfect buck and wing -- that it never collects its thoughts; so many points are made in such scattershot fashion that it's hard to keep track of it all.

George C. Wolfe's book is especially vague about business matters -- for example, how the show keeps touring without paying the cast and racking up debts near $20,000, no small amount of cash in 1921 -- and there are many other nagging questions: Why are Miller and Lyles the only members of the company to apply blackface when on stage? Why, in a show that breaks so many rules, is this deemed necessary, especially when Lyles resents it so bitterly? Exactly what causes the breach between Miller and Lyles, on the one hand, and Sissle and Blake, on the other? What happens to Lyles during his African sojourn and why does he eventually return? One number, "Til Georgie Took 'Em Away," airs what is apparently an urban legend that George Gershwin, who attended Shuffle Along frequently, listened to the clarinetist William Grant Still's preshow warmup and stole what eventually became the first four notes of "I've Got Rhythm" (which was written nine years later). Whatever you think of this notion, it is incoherently explained here.

What with everything else going on, there's no time for character development -- most of the leads are each assigned a single defining trait -- and more than half of the book consists of direct address, with Miller, Lyles, et al. running onstage to deliver the latest news. The exceptions are Audra McDonald, as Lottie, and Brandon Victor Dixon, as Eubie, who get something close to a complete narrative arc tracing the rise and fall of their affair. McDonald does it yet again as Lottie, singing gloriously, tapping reasonably well, and creating a wittily imperious diva who softens up for the wrong man and lives to regret it. She is especially amusing when coaching the ingénue Florence Mills (a first-rate Adrienne Warren) on the correct way to sing the ballad "I'm Cravin' That Kind of Love," all but hijacking the number for herself in rehearsal. Later, when Mills is a star in London, enjoying the kind of success that Lottie dreams about, we see Lottie, open-mouthed with astonishment and envy, circling her rival as she performs. This is Shuffle Along at its best; it didn't happen like this -- it couldn't have -- but it's an elegant way of showing Lottie's displacement by a star of the younger generation. If there's any show left to steal, McDonald does it with "Memories of You," a red-hot torch song informed by the pain of her breakup with Eubie.

Compared to McDonald, the four male leads have comparatively little to do. Stokes Mitchell has an early showstopper with "Swing Along," a number that investigates the percussive properties of luggage, as Miller tries to rally the dispirited company in a New Jersey train station; after that, he mostly comes and goes, although you feel his terrible sense of loss when he loses Lyles as a partner. Billy Porter puts his considerable gift for diva attitude to work as Lyles, but it is a one-note characterization. (There's a single reference to his sexuality, which gets a laugh, but also irritates. (Was Lyles really gay? If so, was it a factor in his career? We never know.) Porter sings Lyles' big second-act number, the furious "Low Down Blues," so recklessly that one wonders if he will have any voice left in a few weeks. Dixon's Eubie is a fine partner for McDonald's Lottie. Joshua Henry does a thoroughly professional job in the underwritten role of Noble. Brooks Ashmanskas, the sole white member of the cast, plays several roles, including various managers and producers, a gossip columnist named Izzy, and none other than Carl Van Vechten, that tireless promoter of the Harlem Renaissance and on-the-record hater of Shuffle Along, who shows up near the end to deliver a song informing Miller, Lyles, Eubie, and Noble that they will all be forgotten in a year or two.

This number and the earlier "The Broadway Buzz" raise the complicated issue of the score's provenance. Much of the original Shuffle Along score has been repurposed here -- including the insanely catchy "I'm Just Wild About Harry" -- and many others are drawn from the Eubie Blake songbook. ("Memories of You," for example, has a melody by Blake and lyrics by Andy Razaf, who also collaborated with Fats Waller.) But the numbers mentioned above, and probably others, don't sound especially in-period and contain lyrics that are highly specific to this show. Do they feature Blake's melodies with new lyrics, as in the manner of another George C. Wolfe musical, Jelly's Last Jam? Or is there a contemporary songwriter, stashed away in an undisclosed location, turning out new material? The program doesn't say.

All of which suggests that Wolfe, as director, hasn't completely pulled together the glittering materials at his disposal to create the dazzling meld of entertainment and social commentary intended here. He does get fine work from his design team, however. Santo Loquasto's scenic design makes use of a series of bare-stage looks, often informed by a single big gesture -- an enormous clock face, a luxury car crossing the stage. Also featured is a rehearsal room with a window on the elevated subway, a couple of sleek deco panels, a stunning red-and-gold show curtain, an act curtain featuring a blowup of a Shuffle Along quote ad, and some lovely recreations, in delicate colors, of period scenery. The lighting designers, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, have reached into their magic box for every trick at their disposal, contrasting warm pastels for the onstage scenes with ice-cold white washes for moments of backstage conflict, creating an exciting chase to simulate the effect of a passing train, and making good use of old-fashioned color wheels for a touch of Roaring Twenties glamour. Ann Roth's costumes include some impeccably tailored suits for the men (especially Lyles, who favors flamboyant cuts and colors), drop-dead gowns for McDonald, and traveling clothes decorated with dozens of deco details. (The millinery, featuring the big hats of the period, is especially impressive.) She also provides plenty of outfits for the show-within-the-show, especially when the company takes a set of mammy dresses and turns them into sexy chorus-girl outfits. Once again, Scott Lehrer brings his unparalleled skill to creating a clear, natural, intelligible sound for the proceedings.

Shuffle Along is an odd one -- a show that frequently dazzles, yet rarely satisfies. By the time it reaches its surprisingly muted conclusion, so many things have been referenced, with adequate amplification, that one hardly knows where to start. At these prices, it's probably not enough to say that it's an entertainment that inspires further reading. (It's also easy to wonder if, with another month of previews, Shuffle Along, which lost 45 minutes of running time during previews, might not have been significantly strengthened.) Wolfe and company have much to tell us -- so much that they occasionally get tongue-tied. -- David Barbour


(2 May 2016)

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