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: King Charles III

CAM01531Obviously I was going to buy a ticket for King Charles III. London’s 2015 Best Play winner? About the Royals? IN BLANK VERSE? Yes please!

A show with stature! Playwright Mike Bartlett has written “a future history play” about what could happen after the death of Queen Elizabeth. Prince Charles is now King Charles, and the plot hinges on his refusal to sign a law that has already been approved by parliament. It’s a ceremonial duty of the monarch, and no king or queen has refused to sign anything for centuries. As you might guess, pandemonium ensues when Charles stands his ground.

Sounds like a pretty exciting drama, right? And the production is wonderful and — as expected — full of stature. In my book, a play with stature should have:

  • choral singing in latin (with a live cellist and oboeist, if at all possible)
  • a large and impressive cast
  • beautiful scenic design
  • plenty of intellect and intrigue
  • Shakespearian characters
  • incredible textual depth

Check, check, check, check, check, check. Let me expand upon a few of those checklist items. First of all, the language. Mr. Bartlett has written something ambitious on a scale I haven’t seen in years. As I’ve already said, it’s in blank verse, so the characters sound modern and timeless all at once. You’ll occasionally hear that backward phrasing that we all recognize from exposure to Shakespeare. I found its use of blank verse absolutely brilliant, an incredibly smart way of constructing a contemporary work that feels like one of Shakespeare’s history plays. It really does make the show feel epic.

And those characters. Tim Pigott-Smith’s Charles feels like a Shakespearian figure, a man of conscience trapped between his morals, his duty, and his unbelievably popular son William. Harry, meanwhile, is equally trapped, though for him it’s more of an I-don’t-fit-in-with-the-Royals malaise. Harry’s plotline is a little more predictable than Charles’s: he falls in love with a penniless art student who opposes the monarchy altogether. Seems like fodder for a romantic comedy, right? Nevertheless, both Mr. Pigott-Smith and Richard Goulding as Harry are phenomenal, forming the emotional center of the show. (Mr. Goulding also reminded me of a guy I used to date, which probably won him extra points to be honest.)

Anyway, as you may have noticed, I keep referring to King Charles III as “a show with stature” and “a wonderful production.” That’s because I’m avoiding the truth. I found it boring. I loved seeing Kate Middleton as a kind of Lady MacBeth; I loved the mixture of modern language and old phrasing; I loved the concept of a play about Charles III. But I simply didn’t love the end result.

Now, why not? Perhaps it’s that I found the play to have a thrilling premise, but for some reason I failed to really buy into what happened after. I was constantly either thinking “this is so farfetched” or “it’s so ridiculous that the Brits even have a monarchy at all” Or I’d think: “Boy, am I glad this monarchy stuff isn’t my problem.” (Now what Anglophile in her right mind would think THAT?)

There’s also the fact that despite all its brilliance in many areas, King Charles III has quite a few plot holes. I don’t want to get too spoilery, so let me just say that the last twist felt a little unwarranted. And Harry’s reaction to that twist also seemed out of step with everything the character had been up to that point.

Or perhaps it’s even a little simpler than that: King Charles III is fascinating in premise, boring in execution. Beautiful language, problematic plot structure. I’m not someone opposed to a nice, long, meaty play, but I imagine this one would really pack a suckerpunch if it had a more intense 90 minute piece. On the other hand — and I always have an other hand, don’t I? — I was certainly exhausted when I saw the show. A two and a half hour history play was probably too ambitious for a Cardinals fan in mourning. I’ll do better next time. Or the play will. Or the Cardinals will.

My Grade: B-
Ticket price: $45
Worth it: Not really
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Standing Ovation Watch: 95% yes

Review: The Heidi Chronicles

2015-03-05 14.49.25The other morning over coffee I chattered to my roommate about all the possible reasons I didn’t warm to The Heidi Chronicles. “Maybe I just don’t go for Broadway plays that much anymore. The theaters are too big.” “Maybe Hamilton ruined me for theater for awhile, because it reminded me how much I can potentially like a show.” “Maybe I was jetlagged.”

Or, maybe The Heidi Chronicles, a Pulitzer-prize winner from 1989, hasn’t really aged very well?

But I don’t like suggesting things like that. Because this play, about a woman’s journey from a high school dance in 1965 to a successful career as an art historian in 1989, is a longtime favorite of many. And there’s lots to like about it: it’s smart, it’s witty, it’s got tons of heart, it’s an interesting portrait of feminism, and it avoids cliches in plot as well as characterization. Heidi meets feminists and becomes one herself, falls in and out of love, grapples with having it all, and copes with loneliness and depression. It’s a lovely rumination on what kinds of problems smart, likeable, hardworking women had to face from the sixties to the eighties. (And what we still face today, in fact.)

The new Broadway production stars Elisabeth Moss (who I know and love from Mad Men) as well as Bryce Pinkham (who I know and love from Gentleman’s Guide) and Jason Biggs (who I don’t know at all). Ms. Moss is well-cast as Heidi (who is every bit as hardworking and bright as Peggy Olson), but the guys were a little less of a good fit. Bryce Pinkham seems to have kept a bit too much of his merry musical comedy persona in the role of Pete, Heidi’s gay best friend. He’s as charming as ever, but something about him seemed stagy. I found Jason Biggs, who plays the role of Heidi’s longtime love Scoop, to be even less convincing. He lacks the charisma that might explain why Heidi has trouble letting go of him; to me he just seemed like a bit of an obnoxious pest.

My largest problem was with The Heidi Chronicles itself, though. Because the play covers twenty-five years of Heidi’s life, most scenes are necessarily laden with exposition. And the dialogue can be extremely witty, but I found its sensibility a bit hard to connect to. This exchange is one of many that flew over my head, for example:

Scoop: … Where did he go to school?
Heidi: Trinity.
Scoop: Trinity? Trinity what? Trinity, Cambridge? Trinity, Hartford? Trinity, the lower school?
Heidi: Trinity, Hartford.
Scoop, aghast: You’re sort of living with an editor who went to Trinity College, Hartford!

Huh? Is Trinity Hartford bad for some reason? This seemed like dialogue written for people who went to Yale, and I found a fair bit of this kind of thing in The Heidi Chronicles. This sort of thing kept me from really connecting with the play. (Read: I kept getting bored.) But on the other hand, it has great moments like this:

Heidi: Actually, I was wondering what mothers teach their sons that they never bother to tell their daughters.
Scoop: What do you mean?
Heidi: I mean, why the fuck are you so confident?

Here’s where The Heidi Chronicles shines; I’d have loved lots more this kind of thing. We see a broad arc of Heidi’s life encompassing many years. But even though she keeps telling us she’s sad (and we get a whole long speech about it in the second act), we don’t really take the plunge into her her world to comprehend why she’s so unhappy. Just why does she struggle so much with relationships and contentment? Or to say it another way: I liked Heidi, but I never really felt like I got her. And I’d have liked to.

But the play I’d like to have seen isn’t the play Ms. Wasserstein wrote, of course. What we have instead is a survey on feminism, with a lot of intelligent things to say about growing up, compromising, friendship, and loss. But it never really takes off. For me, it wasn’t enough to justify Broadway prices; I’d rather just read the play. But then again, maybe I was just jetlagged.

My Grade: C+
Ticket price: $49
Running Time: 2 Hours, 35 Minutes
Worth it: No
Standing Ovation Watch: 40-50%