It is quite possible that the 1920s got their roar from Shuffle Along, the musical (with an all-black cast and creative team) that introduced jazz and syncopation to the Broadway stage. Director George C. Wolfe forcefully makes the case for the show's cultural significance in his musical docudrama, Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, which is now making its world premiere at Broadway's Music Box Theatre. It's an enchanting night on old Broadway, overflowing with talent and kept in constant motion by the brilliant choreography of Savion Glover (Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk). It's also a fitting tribute to one of our most underappreciated musical gems.
Rather than presenting a revival of the 1921 musical comedy, Wolfe (who wrote the new book) pulls the camera back to tell the story of the creative team: composer Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon), lyricist Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry), and comedians Aubrey Lyles (Tony winner Billy Porter) and F.E. Miller (Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell). The show they're writing stars Chitlin' Circuit headliner Lottie Gee (six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald) and the zany Gertrude Saunders (Adrienne Warren) leading a cast of talented black performers from around the country. Using music from the original, Wolfe charts the production's unlikely journey from out-of-town tryouts in Baltimore and D.C. to wandering the wilderness of Pennsylvania and finally landing at the 63rd Street Music Hall in New York, where it became an instant hit.
We understand why it does end up hitting big by the dazzling first-act finale (which is naturally Shuffle's most enduring song, "I'm Just Wild About Harry"), even if we never quite grasp the original plot: Who is Harry? Why does Amber Iman have a dead bird on her head? And why does Billy Porter appear to be pregnant? While ostensibly about a small-town mayoral race, the Miller & Lyles book (which Wolfe recently described in an interview as "terrible") is inconsequential to the work's significance (like a lot of pre-Show Boat musicals). This perhaps explains the asymmetrical praise heaped on Noble and Sissle, leading to the professional jealousy at the center of the second act.
Wolfe adopts a Brechtian style to keep events clear: A screen hanging from the proscenium displays dates, locations, and song titles. As in a popular history, the main plot occasionally digresses to highlight interesting side characters. All the while, the actors unapologetically acknowledge that they are in a theater, interacting with the orchestra pit, and speaking directly to the audience. It's not a typical Broadway musical by any means, and that is a good thing.
With full-bodied arrangements and orchestrations by Daryl Waters, the show uses music from the original Shuffle Along as well as some later songs (like "Everybody's Struttin' Now") by Blake and Sissle. The origin of other numbers is more cryptic: A dark variation on "I've Got Rhythm" called "Till Georgie Took ‘Em Away" is about George Gershwin stealing a progression of notes ("all black keys") from composer William Grant Still, who played in the pit of Shuffle Along. It offers an especially bitter aftertaste considering how that song prominently features in An American in Paris, playing at the Palace just across Times Square. As Still, Phillip Attmore taps up a storm without ever removing a clarinet from his mouth, telling the story of a musician who is supernaturally talented (and tragically obscure).
There are a lot of impressive moments from this star-studded cast. Warren gives a delightfully unhinged performance of "I'm Simply Full of Jazz" that leaves us suspecting that "Jazz" is code for "cocaine." Porter stops the show with his soaring and expressive vocals on "Low Down Blues." As Miller, Mitchell is Obama-like in his inspirational oratory, making a case for his character as the general who marshaled this show into existence. Playing the composers with eerie authenticity, Henry and Dixon feel like they were ripped from the talkies. Buzzing around the periphery, Brooks Ashmanskas gives a comic tour de force as every white person in the play.
Delivering the evening's most touching performance, McDonald sensitively portrays a talented woman who fears her moment may be passing her by. This is especially clear in a scene in which Lottie coaches Florence Mills (also Warren), only to see the younger performer leapfrog her into international stardom. McDonald's palpable chemistry with Dixon makes her storyline all the more heartbreaking: We see Lottie give up professional opportunities just to be with this married man.
While the singing and acting is top-notch, it's the dancing that really wows. We know we're in for something special when we enter the theater and can hear the cast tapping away at a dance call happening just behind the curtain. Glover exceeds all expectations with his heart-pounding and scrupulously constructed choreography, executed with flawless precision by the ensemble. Not only is it the show's most impressive element, but it turns out to be Wolfe's most valuable storytelling tool. Through tap, the chorus becomes a chugging train, the "buzz" on Broadway, and the companies of two rival musicals. It keeps this two-hour-45-minute show from ever dragging.
Santo Loquasto's less-is-more set design clears the floor for big dance numbers while creating a strong sense of place (we know we're in Penn Station by the giant clock hanging upstage). Ann Roth's costumes evoke the glitz of yesteryear (McDonald's feathered fishtail gown is particularly memorable). Sound designer Scott Lehrer maintains excellent balance while helping us forget that this show is electronically amplified, which is crucial since the original wouldn't have been.
It is impossible to leave Shuffle Along not having learned something, but this is far more than just a musical history lesson. While delving into an often skimmed chapter of Broadway, Wolfe and his team give us a sense of what the musical theater can do when artists ignore the artificial limits of their day and just put up the show they want to do.