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Shuffle Along: Theater Review

Shuffle Along Ensemble (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Shuffle Along Ensemble (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

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If you love tap dancing, you’ll be in heaven watching the star-studded production of Shuffle Along that just opened at the Music Box Theatre. From the exuberant opening number, featuring the whole company, Savion Glover’s choreography is a joy ride.

As you may have heard, the full title is Shuffle Along: Or the Making of the Musical Sensation and All That Followed. That means that all the music is drawn from the original score by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, but the book uses both the original concept by F.E. Miller and Aubrie Lyles and the “making of” story by George C. Wolfe, who is also the director.

The producers had hoped it would be categorized as a “revival “ for the Tony Awards, to avoid going up against the blockbuster odds-on Best New Musical favorite, Hamilton, but they got turned down.  In any case, they’re bound to pick up some Tonys – at the very least, for Glover’s choreography. Although they’re not all nominated, the cast, which includes previous Tony Award-winners, the charismatic Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter (of Kinky Boots fame) as Miller and Lyles, and Tony Award-nominees Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry as Sissle and Blake, turns in scintillating performances.

The role of the diva, Lottie Gee, is made to order for Audra McDonald. After channeling Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Audra is free to turn loose her full classically-trained voice here. Ironically, the six-time Tony winner was NOT nominated this time around (there’s pretty good competition), and, as it happens, she’ll be going on hiatus on July 25 to have a baby. Rhiannon Giddens will make her Broadway debut as Audra’s replacement, and though those are big shoes to fill, Rhiannon has the stage presence to do it. (And speaking of big, specifically tap, shoes, it’s been announced that Savion Glover, who’s not currently performing, will join the cast then – another way to offset Audra’s absence).

Some critics have felt that George C. Wolfe’s historical backstory is a little pedantic, but it didn’t bother me. The stars deliver their lines with appealing flair, and a lot of it is interesting: the ways that Shuffle Along was innovative – an all-black production, the use of syncopation, the breaking of stereotypes - and also the way the original plot, which concerns race in a small town, resonates today.

The end is a little bittersweet, as they contemplate what they might have accomplished if the team had stayed intact. Although it was a success, the original Shuffle Along is largely forgotten now; this production is likely to be remembered for years.