Review: Shuffle Along

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not one but TWO fabulous retro Playbills

This might surprise you, but I’ve never really been a tap dance person. (And this coming from a swing dancer!) It wasn’t necessarily in vogue when I fell in love with Broadway (the dominant shows at that time were, of course, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, etc.) and musicals that spoke to me most weren’t likely to use tap much anyway. I liked the big, emotive music and dramatic, expressive dances. The kind of thing you’d see in West Side Story or Cassie’s dance in A Chorus Line. In comparison, 42nd Street or any of the other shows that featured a ton of tap dancing seemed stodgy, old fashioned. I’d see those chorus members (with smiles PASTED on — those fake toothy smiles still grate on me, by the way) tapping and the whole feel of it would be along the lines of “Hey this is BROADWAY so we are going to tap for you!” It’s always seemed a little… cheesy? Dorky?

I know that way back in 1996, George C. Wolfe and Savion Glover’s Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk changed the way a lot of people viewed tap, but I never saw Noise/Funk, unfortunately. As I said, tap just didn’t seem all that interesting to me at the time. And nowadays you don’t see a lot of really innovative tap. (Well, maybe you do if you are paying attention, but I can’t say that I have been. I’ve probably been actively avoiding it, now that I think about it.) Shows like The Book of Mormon and The Producers (among many others) use it to brilliant comic effect, of course, and that’s where I thought tap fit best.

Now. Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed might have transformed my attitude towards tap dancing. And that’s not even the best thing about it. It’s not a perfect show, but I thought it was a truly wonderful, kinesthetic production. The performances are phenomenal, the story is fascinating and moving, and the staging is wonderfully clever.

And, of course, there’s tap dancing. But I’ll get to that.

It’s about Broadway’s biggest hit of 1921: Shuffle Along, an all-black extravaganza full of terrific songs, raucous dancing and lots of jokes. Now, the original Shuffle Along is all but unperformable now. It didn’t age well, to say the least. The original had black performers wearing blackface for further comic effect, for one thing, and a ridiculous, cliched storyline. So what our Shuffle Along has done is use the (still-terrific) songs from the original and enfold them in the story of how the show came to be, and what happened after it barnstormed Broadway.

It’s right in my wheelhouse in a lot of ways. I love plays that teach me about an era of history (All the Way and Wolf Hall, for example), and Broadway in particular (Act One). Go ahead and toss in any “let’s put on a show” cliche you want to, because as I established when I saw Act One, I’m a sucker for that stuff. I’m also a sucker for old-fashioned theatrical delights, and this show is full of them. An old-style playbill, song title cards above the stage, and so on. It’s like they made a show specifically for people obsessed with old-timey jazz, vintage Broadway, and 1920s dance. And you wonder why I liked it?

In the new Shuffle Along, F.E. Miller (Brian Stokes Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (Billy Porter), two comic performers, join together with songwriters Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon) and Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry) to write the show that became Shuffle Along. All four of these performers are outstanding. Charm, individuality, fantastic voices, terrific comic timing. When will you see a better cast than this? And boy is it ever good to see Brian Stokes Mitchell back on Broadway. (It feels like it’s been awhile. Is that true?)

I know what you’re thinking: Yeah, yeah. But why hasn’t she mentioned Audra McDonald yet? From what I understand, I got really lucky as Ms. McDonald missed the next few performances with bronchitis. But she was in the night I saw the show, and giving a typically fabulous performance. If she was already getting sick, I heard no hint of it. Her voice is as stunning as ever. She was warm and dignified as Lottie Gee, the fashionable and proud but minor diva given the leading role in Shuffle Along. But more than that, she was also hilarious. Frankly, it’s just refreshing to see her having fun, after all the horrible onstage suffering that has earned her so many Tonys. This isn’t the kind of performance that is likely to win her another one, but I almost liked her better for all of that. This show is an ensemble piece, and Ms. McDonald fits in beautifully.

And that tap dancing. This wasn’t the Broadway tap I thought I knew. This was hoofing: percussionistic, passionate. The large ensemble numbers burst onstage like a locomotive, driving the narrative and adding syncopation to the music. And there are quieter solo moments that shine, as well. It’s fantastic stuff, and I can’t wait to see which song they choose for the Tony broadcast. Choreographer Savion Glover gets the credit for this, of course, but dance is so seamlessly incorporated into George C. Wolfe’s cinematic staging that basically everything feels choreographed. I can’t say enough about the charismatic staging, to be honest. There are a ton of joyous or clever moments in the piece that surprised me: I was left with the sense of Broadway masters showing us how it’s done.

If there’s something to pick at in Shuffle Along, it’s probably the book, also by Mr. Wolfe. The first act, which tells the story of Shuffle Along‘s gestation and journey to Broadway, is so zippy, energetic and well-constructed that the show seems unstoppable. I noticed some tried-and-true Broadway bits, such as the leading lady jazzing up her big hit number (a moment straight outta Showboat!) but I was having too much fun to care. The second act, however lacks that narrative drive. It’s all about what happened after Shuffle Along opened, and feels a little messier and directionless at times. And the show as a whole is probably overlong, at nearly three hours the night I saw it. No matter, really, though. By the end, it packed quite an emotional punch as you see the (sometimes tragic) outcomes of the people we met and fell for in Act One. I was sobbing.

It’s a show that fits perfectly into the season: while Hamilton reimagines American history through wonderful multiracial storytellers, it’s still about a bunch of white guys. Shuffle Along focuses on actual black history. Both are smashingly powerful. Look around, look around at how lucky we are, Broadway fans.

My Grade: A
Running Time: 2 hours, 50 minutes
Ticket price: $69 (Box office with discount)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes

Next Up: American Psycho

Review: Waitress

IMG_20160421_103343371_HDRMovies turned into Broadway musicals. We are in the midst of an onslaught, and there’s no end in sight. I tend to roll my eyes whenever I hear of a new one. I mean, they can bring out the worst of Broadway’s qualities, right? It can force a weird, hilarious, original piece of film into a standard Broadway template: “I Want” song followed by comic relief followed by conditional love song followed by Big Act 2 number followed (almost always) by a happy ending. All clocking in at exactly 2 hours and 30 minutes.

(I’m not just bashing Broadway here. Stage musicals turned into movies are even worse. Remember when the film version of Jersey Boys extracted all the joy out of the show?)

On the other hand: they’re not uniformly bad. Once breaks the pattern with beautiful staging and choreography. Hairspray’s terrific score makes up for the loss of John Waters’ original voice. The Bridges of Madison County easily surpassed its hokey source material with an intelligent adaptation, beautiful music, and transcendent performances. The stage version of The Lion King, with its staging and use of puppetry, is certainly superior to the movie. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andy Blankenbuehler’s contributions to Bring it On vaulted it from humdrum movie remake to vibrant, energetic stage production. I could go on, of course. But overall these are the unusual ones. In my experience, most musical versions of movies simply aren’t as good as the original.

So where does Waitress fall? Well, good news, musical theater fans: this is more of a Hairspray than a Legally Blonde. It’s got an excellent and very tuneful score from singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, a wonderful and warm leading lady in Jessie Mueller, a lot of humor, and a lovely production. It’s an audience-pleaser: a clever show with a soul. It got a rapturous audience reaction when I saw it, and it seems pretty clear this will be a big hit.

If you haven’t seen the movie: small-town waitress Jenna (Ms. Mueller), surrounded by a group of colorful friends and colleagues (it’s like the southern version of Stars Hollow), finds herself knocked up, further entrapping her into a loveless marriage with the brutish Earl (Nick Cordero). Things get complicated when she finds herself attracted to her obstetrician (Drew Gehling).

Now. About Jessie Mueller. Throughout the show people kept raving about Jenna’s homemade pies as “unearthly” or some equally hyperbolic adjective. That’s basically how I feel about Jessie Mueller’s voice, which is gorgeous, soulful, powerful. And combine that with her ever-appealing persona (she honestly seems like the nicest person on the stage) and you get a sense of how lucky we are to have her on Broadway. She also sounds quite a bit like Sara Bareilles at times, interestingly enough. (Well, since she can mimic Carole King perfectly too, I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise.) The rest of the cast is also really strong. Drew Gehling’s performance as Dr. Pomatter is hilarious, klutzy and appealing (and isn’t it nice to see the MAN as the klutzy one in a romantic comedy?), though his performance might be a little less riotous for those of us who have seen the movie. (The funniest moments were straight out of Nathan Fillion’s book.) And both Keala Settle and Kimiko Glenn are memorable and in great voice as Jenna’s best friends. I do wish that Nick Cordero got to show off some of the charm we saw in Bullets Over Broadway, though. He’s flat-out villainous here. His one-note characterization seems, frankly, a little out of sync with the rest of the show. I wish the role had been written with a lighter touch.

Ms. Bareilles, it seems, grew up a theater nerd, which is why I wasn’t too surprised that the score was so strong. She can write everything from a standout opening number to a throaty act two climax, and do it all well. The music is buoyant, and the lyrics are thoughtful and honest, full of the humor and warmth that is infused throughout the show.

Waitress is notable for having an all-female creative team: in addition to Ms. Bareilles, it was directed by Diane Paulus, written by Jessie Nelson (relying heavily on the movie version by Adrienne Shelly), and choreographed by Lorin Lotarro (who I remember well as the associate choreographer and swing when I ushered at American Idiot). It does indeed feel like a women’s musical, and I mean that as a compliment. It passes the Bechdel test within the first few moments of the show, and it’s all about the importance of friendship, love, community and food.

On the other hand, I could see those who love the movie not caring for the musical Waitress. Sentiment is tuned up a notch. Its harsh and quirky edges have been rounded off (or turned into “musical theater quirky”, which is an entirely different thing). The comedic moments seem brasher, the romantic ones lusher. Jessie Mueller is warm and endearing in a way that Kerri Russell never was in the film, so I could see how some might say the piece overall feels a little less brave, somehow. It’s easier on the senses.

But I didn’t care about any of that. It’s a good show: smart, tuneful, well-cast. The band sounds great and the company is wonderfully diverse. It does exactly what it sets out to do, and what more can you ask? I’m happy it’s on Broadway and I’m even happier it looks to be a big hit.

Now, it must be said that Waitress has zero chance of winning the Best Musical Tony this year. If I thought it would win, I might be less enamored of it. Sound crazy? Well, here’s what it comes down to: this is a really well-executed adaptation, and I certainly liked it better than the movie. But I like musicals best when they (in the words of Mr. Sondheim) “tell ’em things they don’t know,” or when they do something unexpected in terms of writing, staging, performance. And in a season where so many productions do all of those things, Waitress falls just a tiny bit short. It’s just like the movie, only better.

My Grade: A-
Running Time: 2 Hours, 30 minutes
Ticket price: $79 (Box Office with discount)
  Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes

Next Up: Shuffle Along