Shuffle Along: Music Box Theatre 22 June 2016

What does a person do the day after gall bladder surgery? Go see a musical, of course.

I have always wanted to see Audra McDonald on stage. And seeing Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter would be nice too. McDonald would be taking a leave of absence from the show from July until the fall because of her pregnancy (the plan was that Rhiannon Giddens would take her place – it would have been interesting to see if she could act as well as she could sing – and show choreographer Savion Glover would also join the cast for the summer) and I decided I needed to see the show before she left. I also decided to see the show sooner rather than later because at the Tony Awards, McDonald was already showing (and she was still dancing up a storm). And I’m lucky I did because the show closed on July 24 after 38 previews and 100 performances. I guess they couldn’t sell tickets without McDonald in the cast. They did receive 10 Tony Award nominations but, unfortunately for them, this was the year of Hamilton. Originally I bought a ticket for a Wednesday matinee but then I got an email telling me that McDonald would not be performing on matinees and if I wanted to exchange the ticket for an evening performance they would be happy to do so. I did want to so I did so.

So the day after my surgery I was at the Music Box Theatre to see Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. The 1921 musical revue Shuffle Along had an all-black cast performing music and lyrics by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissie and book by FE Miller and Aubrey Lyles. The 2016 musical is a history lesson in race relations in the United States while it portrays the difficulties in mounting the original musical. In the red after out-of-town tryouts and, with most people doubtful that an all-black production could play on Broadway, the only theater they were able to rent was on West 63rd Street, which had no orchestra pit. Despite the remote location and a thin book, the show becomes a hit, runs for 504 performances, then tours for three years, and attracts audiences of all races including many celebrities (Gershwin has been accused of stealing music from one of the members of the orchestra that eventually became “I’ve Got Rhythm.”). The show toured in white theaters across the country. After the show’s run the partners argue about royalties and all four go their separate ways and never reach the same level of success as individuals as they did as partners. Blake, who is married, had a romance with ingénue Lottie Gee and that ends. Over the decades the show and its importance has been forgotten. The most popular song from the original musical is “(I’m Just) Wild About Harry.” Performers and musicians from the original musical who went on to other things are Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Adelaide Hall, Hall Johnson, Florence Mills, Gertrude Saunders, William Grant Still, and Will Vodery.

When I first sat down I realized I could hear tap dancing behind the curtain. Inside the Playbill is a recreation of the program for the original musical with short bios of Blake, Sissle, Miller, Lyles, and Gee. There’s a list and photo of the original cast and photos of the orchestra and the dancers. Also two advertisements that probably appeared in the original program. In the program it reads: “Fire Notice: Look around NOW and choose the nearest Exit to your seat. In case of fire, walk (not run) to THAT Exit. Do not try to beat your neighbor to the street.” Before each scene there is a supertitle with a location name and sometimes a song title. During intermission the curtain contained all the rave reviews for the original musical.

One of the funniest bits in the show is that all the white characters are played by one actor. Sometimes he has to perform with himself because two of the white characters are speaking to each other.

Interestingly, there is no list of the songs in the Playbill but some of the standout moments were “Swing Along” when the company is stuck in a Pennsylvania railroad station with no money. Brian Stokes Mitchell as Miller starts to sing a cappella and soon the entire company joins him in a song about moving on with all the obstacles they face as black people. The original show took a big chance with a love song between a black man and black woman who embrace in Baltimore – previously people had been tarred and feathered for doing that. But for the tryout for the original musical the audience is rapt. “(I’m Just) Wild About Harry” starts as a waltz but Gee works with a tap dancer to change the melody of the song. In that scene I remember thinking that I couldn’t imagine anyone other than Audra McDonald playing Lottie Gee. Billy Porter as Lyles singing “Low Down Blues” was another great moment. All the singing and dancing in the show is fantastic. The history can sometimes feel a little shoehorned in but it’s interesting to hear black performers talk about having to perform in blackface (that’s how Miller and Lyles started in vaudeville). The original musical was the first jazz musical on Broadway so it influenced many shows but it’s not remembered.

The cast was:

The Creators: Brian Stokes Mitchell (FE Miller); Billy Porter (Aubrey Lyles); Joshua Henry (Noble Sissle); and Brandon Victor Dixon (Eubie Blake – many people became familiar with Blake in the 1970s with the musical Eubie!. He died soon after his 96th birthday – not his 100th birthday as he claimed.).

The Performers: Audra McDonald (Lottie Gee – veteran vaudeville performer who finally gets to play the ingénue in a show. She is considered the first black ingénue to appear in a Broadway play); Adrienne Warren (Gertrude Saunders and Florence Mills – Saunders left the show because she felt she became too big for it; Mills was Saunders’ replacement and she went on to fame in Europe. Warren played both parts so differently you wouldn’t know it was the same actress.); Amber Iman (Eva/Mattie Wilkes); Darius de Hass, JC Montgomery, Arbender Robinson, Christian Dante White (The Harmony Kings); Afra Hines, Adrienne Howard, Lisa LaTouche, Erin N. Moore, Janelle Neal, Brittany Parks, Karissa Royster, Pamela Yasutake (The Jazz Jasmines); Philip Attmore, Curtis Holland, Kendrick Jones, Joseph Wiggan, Richard Riaz Yoder (The Dancin’ Boys); LaTouche, Parks, Royster, Yasutake (The Jimtown Flappers); White (Harry Walton); Robinson (Tommy); Holland (Li’l Baby C); Holland, Jones (Dancing Waiters); and Parks, Ysutake (Izzy’s Girls).

Everyone Else: Brooks Ashmanskas (Sam/Izzy/Carlo/Railroad President/Famous Celebrities, and International Emcees); Attmore (William Grant Still); and Iman (Madame-Madame/Church Lady).

Dance captain was Royster and assistant dance captain was Alexandria Bradley.

The orchestra’s conductor and musical director was Shelton Becton and associate conductor was Darryl Ivey. Musicians were Ivey (piano); Bill Easley, Mark Gross, Lance Bryant, Jay Brandford (reeds); Alphonso Horne, Bruce Harris (trumpet); Jason Jackson, James Burton, (trombone); Luico Hopper (bass); Ayodele Maakheru (banjo/guitar); and Alvester Garnett (drums/percussion). Contractor was Seymour Red Press and music copying was Emily Grishman Music Preparation.

Scenic designer was Santo Loquasto, costume designer was Ann Roth, sound design was by Scott Lehrer, lighting design was by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, hair designer was Mia M. Neal, production stage manager was Lisa Dawn Cave, and production manager was Aurora Productions.

Music supervision, arrangements, and orchestrations were by Daryl Waters. The most excellent choreography was by Savion Glover. And the book was by the director George C. Wolfe.


By Carene Lydia Lopez