and original book by F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles
Music by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake
The Music Box
Historical Libretto Series
Theatre Arts Press
Review by Ebele Oseye
“Shuffle Along was a record-breaking, epoch- making musical comedy. Some of its tunes, ‘I’m Just Wild about Harry,’ ‘Gipsy Blues,’ ‘Love Will Find a Way,’ ‘I’m Cravin’ for That Kind of Love,’ ‘In Honeysuckle Time,’ ‘Bandana Days,” and ‘Shuffle Along”–went around the world.”-‘Black Manhattan, James Weldon Johnson.
Hear these beautiful songs, see the finest tap dancers in the world, reconnect to the side-splitting musical comedy of 1921. See the current production of Shuffle Along at The Music Box and be renewed. Enjoy the radiant energies in the love shared by Audra Mcdonald, as Lottie Gee, and Brandon Victor as Eubie Blake. Love in is on stage here and that is no small achievement given racists efforts to destroy any image that portrays Africans as humans. The love and exuberant joy in this musical come to life despite life-threatening struggles.
The matinee performance of Shuffle Along, at the Music Box, on Saturday, 11 June 2016, transported us to a place that was as magical as the beautiful spring day. Although themes are complex, the attentive audience so fully mesmerized by the performance did not fidget or move, except to spontaneously applaud during the performance. And we would have continued the standing ovation indefinitely if the players did not need to exit so that they could recover energy needed for the evening performance.
More than forty-four years ago, when I first learned of Shuffle Along through James Weldon Johnson’s Black Manhattan, I never dreamed of an opportunity to enter that world, getting a closer glimpse of the talent and comedy that literally stopped traffic on 63rd Street. And yet, some five years before the centennial celebration, this wonder. Theatre Arts Press issued the complete libretto for Shuffle Along in 2015 and it is useful to read the original book before seeing the show. The original opening chorus, “Election Day” resonates so heavily with contemporary events that I wish that the revival had more closely followed the earlier story line where two grocers with no knowledge of politics, decide to run for mayor. The old patterns of disorder which still persist, include bribes, fraud, and ignorance. But the current interpretation does include so many of the original songs and a larger historical context, as it informs us of “all that followed”.
“Shuffle Along” the song, encourages us to keep going, even when we lose, to make an effort to raise our spirits, instead of singing the blues. This positive spirit is demonstrated in the dance with the suitcases, visual and sonic magic, where the travelers become the vehicle, the motion which will allow them to progress. The high praise earned by choreographer Savion Glover is fully demonstrated in this dance and throughout the production. The formal dress and beautiful costumes complement the dancers. “I’m Simply Full of Jazz” and the powerful rendition of the “Low-Down Blues” complete with creative lighting stretching a long, deep shadow of the singer across the stage are only two of many performances which literally take your breath away.
During that Saturday matinee performance, we heard a sustaining power that lifted us to the highest place in the heavens, when Audra McDonald sang. Her voice simultaneously carried a joy and sorrow which seemed a larger force than any single human being could possibly deliver. The audience, astonished and euphoric was so grateful for the privilege of hearing Audra McDonald sing, since we knew that she would soon take a maternity leave and it seemed that those maternal energies had entered the song.
Those who hold the opinion that entertainment and education should be separate experiences will discover that this is not true. Among the many gifts of this current production, an insert which includes a replica of the original playbill from Opening Night: May 23, 1921. This includes photographs of Noble Sissle, Eublie Blake, Lottie Gee, played by Audra McDonald, and a photograph of the entire original company. There is also a Shuffle Along Who’s Who, which names Paul Robeson, was one of the Harmony Kings, and Florence Mills who played Ruth, and William Grant Still who played in the orchestra and “who would go on to write over 150 compositions.” Addition information was provided throughout the production through postings on the marquee, through the narration, and through the songs.
While the tentative ending of the current production needs work, collectively all aspects of the entire production and single renditions are so powerful, so inspiring, and so memorable as to be more than worth the price of the ticket.