Sunday, 5 June 2016

SHUFFLE ALONG at the Music Box

     Those of us who study American musical theatre know that while there was a wholesale appropriation of African-American music by white popular composers, particularly in the 1920s, there was SHUFFLE ALONG, a Black created and performed musical that ran over 500 performances (a good run in those days) in a shabby theatre near what is now Lincoln Center. The score was by Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry) and Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon), the book by the comedy team of F.E. Miller (Brian Stokes Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (Billy Porter). All four men were in the original cast of the show along with Lottie Gee, a diva of the Chitlin Circuit (Audra McDonald). George C. Wolfe's SHUFFLE ALONG is not a revival of the show, though the producers tried to convince the Tony Award committee that the show is a revival so they had a chance against the HAMILTON juggernaut. The first act is about the creation of the show, the second about its effect on the lives of its creators and performers. The focus overall is on a chapter of African-American history--how a group of artists temporarily overcame all the obstacles Black writers, composers and performers faced a century ago. Even though Broadway and Off-Broadway now welcome artists of color, it is crucial to remember that this is a recent phenomenon. Wolfe's book is intelligent and always absorbing. The musical numbers are all from the score of the original SHUFFLE ALONG and they're terrific.
     The production--what can one say? The five leads are the creme de la creme of current musical stars. Audra McDonald is funny as the diva-ish Lottie Gee. She sings magnificently, of course and even dances up a storm. I will run out of superlatives for the performances of Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry. Brian Stokes Mitchell has less to do, but adds even more star power. How often does one get to see this many great stars in the same show? Brooks Ashmanskas is delightful as all the white characters. Savion Glover's tap choreography is awe-inspiring and one can only cheer the great ensemble that dances it. A special cheer to Ann Roth's spectacular costumes.
     Nobody seems to be able to talk abut anything but HAMILTON right now, but SHUFFLE ALONG is also a great show. Even the band is special. Don't miss it.
SHUFFLE ALONG. Music Box Theatre. June 2, 2016.

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