It might be the longest title of any Broadway show ever: Shuffle Along or The Making Of The Musical Sensation of 1921 And All That Followed: but it’s possibly the most important new show of the current Broadway season.
It’s in early previews, and I saw one of the last performances before it goes into hiatus for the creatives to rework and refashion the show prior to its opening, which is currently scheduled for April 28. It was the first performance after three had been cancelled, one at least because of the indisposition of Audra McDonald.
Given the early stages of this production and the clear certainty that the show is not “frozen”, it would be inappropriate to review it. Musing about it, however, seems apt. But if I was to review it, the production I saw would gain an effortless five stars.
It is genius in many ways.
It has a stellar principal line-up, a large multi-talented cast, an enthralling story, and memorable choreography, not to mention some quite wonderful songs, improved by remarkable performances.
And there is the uncommon spectacle of seeing so many non-Caucasian performers on a Broadway stage. It’s by no means unique – indeed, not far away on Broadway The Color Purple has an exclusively non-Caucasian cast kicking goals. But there is something particularly important about the casting and composition of this show, which, for ease, I will refer to as Shuffle.
Actually, there are a couple of reasons why that shorthand is apt. Firstly, the principals are shuffled like a pack of cards and turn up for trump moments from time to time, without exception to very great advantage. Secondly, the action shuffles from reflective narrative to realistic re-creation to glorious production number to clever conjecture to extraordinary, raw political commentary – and it does all that without every making a serious mis-step. Thirdly, like any good shuffle of a pack of cards, you never quite know what is coming next, and just when you feel sure you do know what to expect, a Joker turns up and things just pivot.
Part way through the second Act, I realised that the only other time I had experienced a sensation like that which I was experiencing with Shuffle was in Sondheim and Lapine’s Into The Woods. The first act is pure joy, a lot of wonderful characters doing fun and exciting things, a lot of magic in the staging and playing, and a tremendously effective and joyful finale. The second Act starts as the first ended, but then veers off into wilder, scarier, and more important, more realistic territory. The pain of the second Act just can’t arise without the ebullience of the first – unless you care about, nay love, the characters in Shuffle the punch to the stomach the second Act provides is not nearly as effective or affecting.
Casting is key to this – and what a cast. Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon, Brooks Ashmanskas and Adrienne Warren. Each is a star and brings real star quality to what they do here. Ashmanskas is the odd one out, being Caucasian, but he also plays all the white roles, and very effectively – despite the wide range the various characters encompass, he makes them all distinctive. It is, creatively, a canny decision to present the various white characters in one persona. In one stroke, a powerful point about race relations is starkly illustrated.
McDonald is a revelation. She sings with the beautiful virtuoso complexity that one expects from her; her voice radiates joy and piercing, fundamental emotions. But her comic performance here is wholly unexpected, delicious and surprising. She essays the diva of the time with judicious perfection, a flurry of fur, attitude and poised perfection. Who knew she could tap? It’s an extraordinary, wonderful performance.
There is a moment when her character, Lottie Gee, gets a young man from the ensemble to tap out a beat while she “fixes” one of the composer’s songs: it’s magical to watch, and not the least because one can’t help but wonder how thrilling the experience must be for that young man.
Brian Stokes Mitchell brings gravitas to every occasion in which he is involved, and it is not different here. He is quite marvellous, almost judicial in his bearing, lending a sense of true authenticity to every part of the narrative. Brandon Victor Dixon is undeniably engaging as Eubie Blake, the composer at the heart of the original 1921 production which inspired this Shuffle. He is besotted with McDonald’s Gee and, in a way, she becomes his muse. Their doomed love affair provides an astringent counter-point to the narrative.
As the flamboyant Aubrey Lyles, Billy Porter, albeit slightly hamstrung by an awkward wig, is in superb form. Archly funny and rebelliously brittle, it’s a fine characterisation. He has a superb number in the second Act, but his voice seems too tired/ruined in the moment; this may be a result of Kinky Boots or of ongoing rehearsals/changes forShuffle, but either way it is disappointing. In every other way, Porter is the consummate performer here. As is Joshua Henry, who plays Noble Sisse with style and grace, but who never really gets a song to shine with. I guess not everyone can, but given Henry’s vocal prowess, it seems a lost opportunity.
Adrienne Warren is marvellous in the dual roles of Gertrude Saunders and Florence Mills. She literally exits as one character and returns, seconds later, as the other and is completely convincing as both. One of the most wonderful sections of the piece occurs when McDonald’s Gee gives instruction on performance techniques to Warren’s Mills – it is gentle and acidic all at once, and it underlines one of the key messages of Shuffle: black performers can and do support each other in a way which may compromise their own career/stardom.
It’s a potent message.
One of many that Shuffle assures you think about.
In the second Act, the characters cope explicitly with the ways, the many ways, in which the White world has exploited and assumed the treasures, glories and specifics of the non-White world. A section involving George Gershwin is both sobering and astonishing.
In a very dramatic and powerful way, the second Act blisteringly establishes the gulf between what white people make of the performances of black people and reality, and the ongoing pain experienced by black creatives struggling in a white world. Porter and Ashmanskas are particularly electric here, in words and action; equally, though Stokes Mitchell and McDonald, through silence, convey decades of shared pain, gestalt grief.
The presence of four true, great, black Broadway stars on stage as these climactic scenes play out is magical – and harrowing. Just them being there, with their shared skills, genius and status clear to all, lends authenticity, proportion, and deeply resonating honesty to the experience that plays out.
At interval, several sets of elderly white couples shuffled off, away from the theatre, not to return. “Who cares about that sort of nonsense?” one of the matriarchs spat loudly, before turning to her husband and admonishing him further with “This was your idea.”
This was before the second Act. They are, of course, the very audiences who should see Shuffle and try to come to grips with its themes. Because, as Obama’s first-rate Presidency proves, for many Americans not much has changed.Shuffle might be set in the past, but its themes and points are still pertinent, its lessons still need to be learnt.
George C. Wolfe provides the book here which augments, supplements and repositions the original book by F.E. Miller (Stokes Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (Porter) and the music and lyrics from Noble Sissle (Henry) and Eubie Blake (Dixon). Savion Glover’s choreography is deliciously rebellious, striking and fabulous – I was struck several times by how much better The Scottsboro Boys might have been with this sort of idiosyncratic dancing rather than the smooth, familiar lines used there. Daryl Waters ensures no musical note is left unturned or untuned, and the orchestra is sublime.
Shuffle is one of those mercurial masterpieces: there is so much surface joy that it can be taken simply as genial fun, with breathlessly energetic and splendidly eccentric tap routines (there is a wonderful nod to West Side Story at one point which is absolute genius), wonderful costumes and performances, and set and lighting designs which transport you through time, or as something altogether more important and fascinating. And humbling.
By the time it opens, Shuffle will, no doubt, be different in many ways from the version I saw. There is, after all, no piece of theatre which can’t be improved in some way. But the Shuffle I saw will stay with me, providing a new bar for which all new musicals should seek to aim. Not to mention inspiring an interest in researching the historical figures at the centre of Shuffle.
If you are in New York, don’t miss it. If you aren’t, go to New York to see it.