Audra McDonald is fantastic in Shuffle Along – review at Music Box Theatre, New York
This astonishing musical is part thrilling re-construction and part vivid deconstruction of the process of putting on a 1921 Broadway show that had had a seismic impact on the art form.
Shuffle Along was Broadway’s first hit musical to be produced and written by an all-black creative team and to star an all-black company, and was also, radically, the first to feature a love song performed by two people of colour to each other. It launched the careers of Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall, Florence Mills and Paul Robeson, among others.
Now it has become a showcase for some of Broadway’s greatest contemporary talents, including three Tony winners – Audra McDonald (a six-times honoree), Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter – who respectively play the star diva and co-writers of the book of the 1921 show within the show.
There is no greater voice in modern musical theatre than McDonald and she lends those rich, glorious tones to both the title song and the original show’s break-out hit (I’m Just) Wild About Harry. She will be taking a leave of absence from the show from June 21 to September 11 to reprise her last Broadway show Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in London.
The conflicted relationships between writers FE Miller and Aubrey Lyles (Mitchell and Porter), and the composer/lyricist team of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle (Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry) provide the meat of the behind-the-scenes drama, culminating in lawsuits. But the drive and passion of George C Wolfe’s utterly gorgeously executed musical is the percussive tap dancing of choreographer Savion Glover. It propels the stage in a symphony of movement.
Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting matches it in fluidity and focus, scenes shimmering with motion, with a succession of showstopping images conjured by the fusion of the lighting with Glover’s dancers, all beautifully dressed by costume designer Ann Roth.