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