Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed is a refreshing burst of energy, no caffeine necessary. With a cast that features Audra McDonald, Billy Porter, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Joshua Henry, and Brandon Victor Dixon (there are 16 Tony wins and noms between them), the jazzy musical boasts so much star power, at times it seems unfair to the rest of the Broadway circuit.
Director George C. Wolfe and choreographer/tap dancer extraordinaire Savion Glover reunite for the first time in 20 years (1996’s Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk) for the musical centered on the real-life creative team behind the 1921 Broadway sensation Shuffle Along. Here, we meet playwrights F.E. Miller (Stokes Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (a phenomenal Porter), lyricist Noble Sissle (Henry) and composer Eubie Blake (Dixon). All four differ in personality (Porter’s flamboyant Lyles could come with his own Housewives-esque tagline: “I say what I want, when I want”), but share the same dream — to launch the first all-black love story musical on Broadway. And make it a success, at that. (In our Hamilton-iverse, this may feel like a no-brainer, but as we find out in the show, black actors who did even so much as hold hands on stage could be “tarred and feathered” after the curtain closed.)
Enter McDonald as actress Lottie Gee, the Kentucky-bred, headstrong feminist whose dreams of stardom outweigh all four of the show’s collaborators combined. She nurtures her fellow actors, teaching them how to command a stage — until they get a little too good, of course; this is the ruthless world of show business, after all — and takes on the role of team captain when the production company quavers at an $18,000 debt. Family-style servings of collard greens paired with her soprano cure any and all anxieties. There’s a reason McDonald has six Tonys and counting: Her honey-like voice captivates, whether she’s singing bebop or intentionally trying to outshine an ingenue.
After touring the east coast and barely making ends meet, pawning watches to pay for train tickets along the way, Shuffle Along does, in fact, become a wild success. Miller is dripping in fur; Sissle wears a shiny new watch on both wrists. But like all good things, this cloud nine-level bliss comes to an end. We experience egos, money, lawsuits, love lost and ultimately, the disintegration of what could have been. The show closes with a flash into the futures of the talented artists. One actress was sick of playing maids, so she quit the business; another actor became a shoe shiner — a look into all of the promise and potential that was lost, and ultimately, what could have been a changed world.
Glover’s rhythmic tap is the true pulse of Shuffle Along. The clickety-clacks heard from 30-plus dancers at once — with never a single heel drop out of place — ignite every seat in the theater and quickly become the only beat we need, hold the orchestra. Dancers decked in dazzling sequins, feathers, crushed velvet and silk (courtesy of famed Tony Award-winning costume designer Ann Roth) tap with equal parts heart and windup toy to the point where their subhuman-level skills almost seem easy. Almost. Even when the audience holds its breath for a beat as McDonald, who’s said she hasn’t tapped in over a decade, makes her first move, it’s fruitless. The national treasure kicks her leg up well past her shoulder as casually as if she was scratching her back.
Clocking in at just shy of three hours, Shuffle Along never feels long — it’s a dazzling production that celebrates art, dreams, and equality. And when the man behind me emphatically screamed out, “Damn!” after the final number, I had to nod my head and agree. A-