Richard and I saw this musical on Broadway on 5/6. The full title is *Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed*, which gives a good sense of what the show is. It was indeed a musical sensation in 1921, and nearly unprecedented for a Broadway musical at that time to be written and produced by African-Americans. It was also notable for featuring an African-American couple singing a love song to each other.
George C. Wolfe has written the book for the show and directed it. It had maybe the most thrilling opening number I've ever seen - - but I wonder if every thrilling opening number works on your parts in a way that makes you forget other thrilling opening numbers. I can definitely say that *Shuffle Along* had the most exciting dancing I've ever seen in a Broadway show. I reminded Richard, as the show was about to start, that I become a weepy mess when in the presence of well done tap dancing. A well done kick line has the same effect on me. I think it has to do with the achievement of a group of people working together to do something extraordinary, it's very moving to me, it hits me where I live. Well, right on cue, the first number ended and Richard turned to me, bug-eyed, to see what there was to see - - I was, indeed, a weepy mess. There were many more opportunities for this over the course of the show, it's a tap-heavy show, and it was all first class. I was wailing audibly. I'm sure people around me were thinking, "Child, they are tap dancing. This is not *Steel Magnolias*."
Let me add quickly that it has to be well done to make me weep. I saw *42nd Street* on Broadway not long after I moved to New York, and the tapping was so sloppy it made me grumpy. I can't say I've ever seen a badly done kick line.
The choreography is by tap master Savion Glover. He didn't just put fantastic tap dancing on the stage, he really researched what the style was in 1921. The women of the chorus did a number early in the show, and I noticed that they were tapping in unison, but their arms and hands were all doing their own thing, to a degree. It was an interesting variation, you nearly always see everyone doing the same thing, it was nice to see the women being more individual above the waist, and I imagine Glover got this from researching the period.
The energy of the first act was phenomenal. The lights came up at intermission and I said to Richard, "This is blasphemy, but I'm enjoying this more than *Hamilton*." But, just as I expected, the second act lagged a bit. The problem is that things turn sour in the story - - it's hard to sustain the excitement in any case, but especially when the characters are unhappy. Plus there were too many moments in the second act where the actors turned to the audience and said, "And then I..." This is an efficient yet tiresome way to tell a story. So even though *Shuffle Along* had a more exciting first half, *Hamilton* emerges the winner because the storytelling is on a much higher level.
There are five starring roles in the show: Audra McDonald as leading lady Lottie Gee, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter as Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, the comedy duo who performed in and wrote the script for the show, and Joshua Henry and Brandon Victor Dixon as Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, who performed in and wrote the songs.
McDonald is without a doubt the star. She has won a record six Tonys, she's one of the brightest stars on Broadway, and this show presents her doing things she hasn't done before. We knew she could sing like an opera singer and could tear your heart out in a bluesy ballad, but who knew she could scat, and who knew she was such a good dancer? She was a joy to behold.
Brian Stokes Mitchell was suave and sincere and tremendous. And it was touching to see him and McDonald together in a show again (they played a couple in *Ragtime* in 1998). Brandon Victor Dixon was the one lead I didn't know, and he was charming as Eubie Blake. He's the most mellow of the five characters, and Dixon was refreshingly low key in his performance. Joshua Henry just oozes charisma, he's a marvel. And he sings like a dream.
Billy Porter is a powerhouse. I said to Richard at the intermission, "They had better give Billy Porter a number!" Everyone had a solo moment (Audra had a few) in the first act except for him. He was given a show-stopping song in the second act, and it was a case of be careful what you wish for. The audience went crazy for it, but I didn't like his performance. He showed us the song rather than sharing it. It was a display, it was not an expression.
I love to observe the audience. The show was sold out and the audience was rabid for a good time. It made me think of *Bells Are Ringing* - - a charming, well-made show that had a strong run of over two years. It was a show that people went to when they couldn't get tickets for *My Fair Lady*, which opened a few months before (and ran for three years after *Bells Are Ringing* closed). I hope *Shuffle Along* fills that role vs. *Hamilton*.