The official title of the new musical “Shuffle Along: Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and Everything that Followed” is just about as long as the show itself. Tonight’s reviews are omitting one salient point– the show clocks in at three hours. The first act is very good, and you could easily leave at intermission and never miss a thing. But with ticket prices up around $200, you’re going to come back and see what happens.
This is what happens: all these people we love from Broadway– George C. Wolfe, Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Savion Glover, not to mention Eubie Blake– they’ve thrown themselves into a huge freakin’ mess of a show that could use another few months to sort itself out before the reviews come in. And you know, everyone in the theater community loves these guys, so no one is going to say it. But “Shuffle Along etc.” has no actual story or plot, undeveloped characters, and a lot of historical lectures.
It also has a star– Audra McDonald– who radiates on stage. You can’t get enough of her. The show’s website and the ads, etc splash her name everywhere. But she is leaving in six weeks for the summer. She doesn’t return until mid September. So good luck with that.
In Wolfe and Glover there is talent and genius to spare. Considering what they were given– a big history lesson and no idea what to do with it– they stage “Shuffle Along” as brilliantly as they can. And in the first act, which tells the story of how all these people put on the first ever real black musical in 1921, they just shine shine shine. We get the entire saga of how hard it was to bring “Shuffle Along” to New York in 1921, how they chose a theater on West 63rd St., how Blake and his songwriter partner, and the producers, were in debt and doubt.
And then the final number of Act 1– “Wild About Harry”– Audra McDonald brings down the house, “Shuffle Along” is a hit. George Gershwin even comes and nicks a few notes for his songs. Good night, and good luck.
But you spent $200 or more including the sitter and parking, etc. So you do come back. Act 2: After “Shuffle Along” became a hit, all of the people involved fought with each other. They had failures. Nothing lived up to their great success. The show grinds down and down until finally, the five leads– each of whom has to have a big number of their own– turns to the audience and tells you when and how they died. I am not kidding. It’s like “Our Town,” the jazz version. The show ends with a lecture about black history. Eubie Blake (the excellent Brandon Victor Dixon) reveals that he wasn’t actually 100 when the world celebrated his centennial, he was really 96.
If you love tap dancing and syncopation (and need a primer about how they began) then “Shuffle Along” is the show for you. Savion Glover’s numbers– and there are a lot of them– make this the black “42nd Street.” Some numbers run back to back because there’s no story. But that’s ok. All of them are wonderful, especially the ones that use hard wooden luggage for percussion. I only wish they’d put one of these numbers at the very end, so you could leave the theater humming or tapping.
The importance of “Shuffle Along” is that like an August Wilson play or “Hamilton,” it fills in a big blank. Like much of black history in America, it’s unknown. So we’re relieved it’s finally being told. And yes, these performers are the creme de la creme. You can’t do better. Brian Stokes Mitchell? He’s like buttah. Also, you get this great extra book with the Playbill– a replica of the 1921 program with all kinds of extra information. It’s very helpful.
But this is not “Hamilton.” I have no idea who or what I was supposed to root for– for the show to go on? For Audra McDonald to get over the flu? (She’s missed a lot of performances.) For a list of songs to be provided? (Not in the Playbill.)
And is this a revival or original show? It’s original because really no one alive ever saw the original “Shuffle Along.” The whole thing is brand new as far as I’m concerned.
As for the length: keep cutting. The night I went, someone who works in theater told me: “Before our break, the show was three hours and ten minutes. I’m sure it’s shorter now.” It ain’t, by much. And it still needs an ending. But go, and be razzle dazzled by these players and the sheer ingenuity of how this has been attempted.
PS Like all Scott Rudin produced shows, there is no real opening night, no press invited, no photos, it’s all done in a kind of mean secrecy. So The Crucible, Blackbird, and The Humans all got this treatment this season. I paid $80 for two tickets to “Shuffle Along” on its Actors Fund night, and I’m glad I did.