“Shuffle Along” is to die for. Subtitled “The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” the dance-drunk show (choreographed by Savion Glover) recounts the perilous journey to Broadway of the first musical written, produced and performed by African Americans. In his zeal to illustrate the full impact of this landmark production, helmer (and book writer) George C. Wolfe piles it on, stretching the show’s baggy structure all out of shape. But an incoherent book seems a small price to pay for the joy of watching Audra McDonald cut loose.
The show opens with a thunderous clap, as the principals (yes, they dance too!) join dozens of Dancin’ Boys, Jimtown Flappers, and Jazz Jasmines, in a thrilling tap extravaganza. The number is rooted in the choreographer’s style of rhythm tap, but over the course of the show, his amazing dancers execute steps in a variety of styles — from classic slides best performed by slender men in tuxedos and gymnastic leaps best left to the kids, to that lower-body stomping that sounds like the hoofers are dancing on drums.
Both the opening and closing numbers of this ebullient show pay homage to alumni of the original production of “Shuffle Along” and those who followed. Florence Mills didn’t join the show until Gertrude Saunders was fired (both characters are played here by the dynamic Adrienne Warren), and Josephine Baker had to wait until she turned 16 to officially sign on. But Adelaide Hall was in the chorus of Jazz Jasmines. And the refined Lottie Gee, played here by that goddess we mortals know as Audra McDonald, was the star of the original production.
The show, we learn, was the brainstorm of F.E. Miller (the commanding Brian Stokes Mitchell) and his partner Aubrey Lyles (Billy Porter, ever the charmer), a vaudeville team sick of doing comic routines in cork face. They were joined by another team of comics on the Keith vaudeville circuit, Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry, so very elegant) and Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon, a sweet perf that grows and grows on you). The four partnered as producers, and Sissle and Blake wrote all the songs, including “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” “Love Will Find a Way” and the explosive title song.
Once the introductions are out of the way and the joint is rocking, the first act settles into the routines of a backstage musical. But this is no ordinary show, and a gripping tale is made of the backstory: how the would-be entrepreneurs find an agent (Brooks Ashmanskas, funny here and in all the other white roles) and forge a production deal to take the show all the way to Broadway — if they survive the road.
Glover has created some frenzied dance numbers to send the exhausted and unpaid cast on a grueling out-of-town trek from New Jersey to Washington and Baltimore, trying to earn enough money to get to New York — or at least to the next town on the tour. One syncopated locomotive number (pounded out with battered suitcases) sees the performers through a lengthy string of one-night stands across Pennsylvania.
The focus of the backstage story is the love affair between Blake, who played the piano in the original production, and Gee. McDonald takes the role and does everything in this show but fly. Lottie was a lady of quality, and Ann Roth — the same Ann Roth who created all those gorgeously gaudy stage costumes — has dressed the star accordingly, in tasteful frocks and heavenly furs.
But those pretty dresses don’t stop McDonald from getting down. She shimmies, she shakes, and on my word, she taps — for one number, in white, wide-legged pants that understandably catch the roving eye of Dixon’s smitten Eubie. By now, the singer has proved her acting skills, but this show highlights her comedy chops. She earns her laughs in a scene when she and a male performer dare (dare!) to touch hands and even kiss (kiss!) before a white audience. Will they or won’t they be tarred and feathered?
Once the show finally gets to Broadway and proves a huge hit (provoking hilarious raves from white critics), it’s euphoria all over the theater. Wolfe arranges for a priceless sight gag to mark the show’s success — the four partners, Miller & Lyles and Sissle & Blake, parade across the stage and hop into a shiny red roadster driven by a uniformed chauffeur.
But what the first act giveth, the second act taketh away.
Following some resounding flops, the partners all fight and break up. First, one pair splits with the other; then, the partners themselves part. Even Eubie and Lottie, those lovers we have come to love, lose their way.
At this point, the show is actively fighting with itself. At the same time that the book is consigning “Shuffle Along” and its creators to oblivion, the narrative returns to its original objective of saluting all the black shows and African-American performers inspired by the musical. One minute, that prissy chronicler of the Harlem Renaissance, Carl Van Vechten (another nice turn from Ashmanskas), unkindly tells these pioneering creatives that their show will be forgotten and no one will remember their names. Blink your eyes, and theater legends like Paul Robeson are trotted out to reassure everyone that “Shuffle Along” did not die in vain.
It’s understandable that Wolfe would fall for this rich material, but he really should have stopped himself from cramming it all into this show.