SHUFFLE ALONG, OR THE MAKING OF THE MUSICAL SENSATION OF 1921 AND ALL THAT FOLLOWED
Music Box Theatre
239 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 9, $69 - $169
Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed has some of the best music and dancing you’ll find on Broadway right now. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the book to support it. The show tells the story of the historic 1921 production of Shuffle Along, a landmark musical featuring music by Eubie Blake, lyrics by Noble Sissle, and book by vaudevillians F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles; Blake played the piano onstage (there was no orchestra pit at the 63rd Street Music Hall), while Sissle starred as detective Jack Penrose, Miller was mayoral candidate Steve Jenkins, and Lyles was candidate Sam Peck. The 1921 cast also included Lottie Gee as Jessie Williams, Gertrude Saunders as Ruth Little (later replaced by Florence Mills), and Adelaide Hall as a Jazz Jasmine in the large ensemble. George C. Wolfe (Jelly’s Last Jam, Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk) wrote the book for and directs the new show, which went through significant revisions during previews — at one point it was clocking in at more than three hours (the final version is two hours and forty minutes), and six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald (The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill), who plays Gee, had to take time off for illness. (It was later revealed that she is pregnant and will be going on maternity leave July 24, when Carolina Chocolate Drops singer Rhiannon Giddens will take over her role.)
Savion Glover’s choreography is energetic and exhilarating while incorporating multiple genres, as are Ann Roth’s dazzling period costumes. But the relating of the behind-the-scenes efforts of a group of black men and women trying to storm Broadway is trite and clichéd, dragging down the rest of the show. Brandon Victor Dixon (The Color Purple, Motown: The Musical) and Joshua Henry (Violet, The Scottsboro Boys) are fine as Blake and Sissle, respectively, but Brian Stokes Mitchell (Man of La Mancha, Kiss Me, Kate) as Miller tries his best with dry lines, and Billy Porter (Kinky Boots, Miss Saigon is miscast as Lyles. Brooks Ashmanskas (Something Rotten, Fame Becomes Me) is fun as all the white men. It all makes for way too bumpy a ride, despite such songs as “Broadway Blues,” “Affectionate Dan,” “Honeysuckle Time,” “Love Will Find a Way,” “You Got to Git the Gittin’ While the Gittin’s Good,” and “(I’m Just) Wild About Harry,” with rousing orchestrations and arrangements by Daryl Waters (After Midnight, Memphis). The Playbill comes with a bonus re-creation of the original program (and some extra information) from when the show opened May 23, 1921, at the 63rd Street Music Hall. Shuffle Along wants to be both historic and historical, instead losing its focus as it gamely attempts to meld substance with style.