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The first half of George C. Wolfe’s “Shuffle Along” is to 2016 what “Hamilton” was to 2015: It’s the musical you’ve got to see, even if you have to hock your Maserati to pay for the ticket. The cast, led by Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter, is as charismatic as you’d expect, and Savion Glover’s near-nonstop choreography explodes off the stage with the unrelenting impact of a flamethrower. But then comes intermission, and what had looked like a masterpiece goes flat and stays that way.
What’s wrong with “Shuffle Along”? In order to explain why the show doesn’t work, it’s necessary to start by explaining what it tries to do. The original “Shuffle Along,” which is now forgotten save by theater historians, was one of the very first all-black Broadway musicals to score a major commercial success. It can’t be revived because the book, by F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, is dated beyond hope of revision, but the jazzy Eubie Blake-Noble Sissle score (which is now best remembered for “I’m Just Wild About Harry”) still retains much of its punch and charm. Hence Mr. Wolfe’s show, whose title, “Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” sums up his approach. He has taken the score and used it as the basis for a “42nd Street”-style backstage musical that not only tells how “Shuffle Along” was made but seeks to explain its historic significance…
Mr. Wolfe, who directed “Shuffle Along” and wrote the book, has thus tried to cram two different but related shows onto the same stage, one of them a flashy, more or less traditional musical-with-a-message and the other a sober-sided play-with-songs about a little-known but nonetheless important episode in the history of black culture in America. The problem is that the first act, in which the emphasis is placed almost exclusively on the production numbers, is so viscerally entertaining that you can’t help but feel disappointed when the dancing stops and the talking starts—especially since the talking, while undeniably interesting, is for the most part undramatic, even bookish….
“Tuck Everlasting,” Natalie Babbitt’s immensely and deservedly successful 1975 children’s novel about immortality and its discontents, has now been turned into a modestly proportioned, low-key Broadway musical about a family whose members wander into an enchanted wood, drink unwittingly from a fountain of youth and live—and live—to regret it. The results aren’t perfect by any means, and the pop-folk score (music by Chris Miller, lyrics by Nathan Tysen) owes far too much to “Into the Woods” for comfort. Still, “Tuck Everlasting” realizes enough of its ambitions to be watchable…
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To read my review of Shuffle Along, go here.
To read my review of Tuck Everlasting, go here.
A CBS Sunday Morning feature about Shuffle Along: