28 June 2016

'Shuffle Along' (Redux)

On 23 May 1921, an odd little musical fillip opened at Daly’s 63rd Street Music Hall, 22 West 63rd Street in Manhattan, “a theater of no consequence on a street of no consequence” about ten blocks above the northern reaches of what’s usually considered the Broadway theater district.  (Between Central Park West and Broadway, Daly’s was about 1½ blocks east of where Lincoln Center now stands, in the neighborhood of slums and tenements where, four decades later, West Side Story was filmed before it was razed by New York City’s master builder, Robert Moses, to make way for the performing arts complex.)  Off the beaten track for commercial theater, there wasn’t much in the show that marked it as even a modest hit: it had a silly plot on which to string its music, but oooh! that music and the dances that went with them.  By the time the curtain came down on the première of Shuffle Along, it was a certifiable smash by any standards of the day.  The début production—there would be revivals and national tours—closed on 15 July 1922 after 484 performances in an era when long runs were unknown.  (The remake says there were 504 performances, but I don’t know where the discrepancy comes from.  Adding the total performances from the 1921, ’33, and ’52 productions comes to 505.  Though the production’s promotional literature specifies the 504 figure was the New York run, perhaps it actually includes the performances in Shuffle Along’s test runs outside the city.)

The expectations Shuffle Along defied started with its cast—all African-American performers.  In the early years of the 20th century, that was exceedingly rare.  Institutional and deliberate racism and a paternalistic attitude toward African Americans by white society took an immense toll on the show’s creators and performers.  Among other issues with which they had to contend was the tradition that black performers had to appear in blackface, a common but disturbing aspect of the era, because blacks weren’t accepted as genuine human beings on stage; by the same token, a love song or realistic romantic relationship between black characters was unacceptable to white audiences—the actors could actually be tarred and feathered by angry spectators—until Shuffle Along braved the potential backlash.  (Though Shuffle Along overcame these potential problems, they weren’t erased and some of the play’s follow-up was caused by white America’s innate bigotry—though, as the remake makes clear, some was also generated by the prickly personality conflicts among the four creative artists.)

Beyond that, it was the first piece of theater in the United States that became a general success, meaning with white audiences, that was written by black artists.  The book of Shuffle Along was the creation of two black vaudevillians, F. E. (Flournoy) Miller (1885-1971) and Aubrey Lyles (1884-1932), based on one of their comedy sketches, “The Mayor of Jimtown.”  The jazz score was composed by the song-writing team of James Hubert (Eubie) Blake (1887-1983), who wrote the music, and Noble Sissle (1889-1975), lyrics.  No one had seen anything like Shuffle Along before; even the great “black” musicals of the coming decades were created by white writers and composers: Porgy and Bess (1935), music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, and book by Heyward; Cabin in the Sky (1940), music by Vernon Duke, lyrics by John Latouche, and book by Lynn Root.  (I saw an Encores! concert performance of Cabin last winter and posted a report on ROT on 23 February 2016.  Some history, including a mention of Shuffle Along, appears in that report.) 

F. E. (Flournoy) Miller and Aubrey Lyles, a pair of Tennesseans (Miller from Columbia and Lyles from Jackson), met as students at Nashville’s Fisk University, where Lyles was studying medicine. They launched their performing careers while at school, but in 1905, the duo were hired as resident playwrights for the African-American Pekin Theater Stock Company in Chicago where they introduced the characters of Steve Jenkins and Sam Peck (the roles they played in Shuffle Along).  They went to New York in 1909 and began performing in vaudeville and by 1912, they had become the vaudeville duo of Miller and Lyles and were touring the United States. In 1915, they traveled to England to perform.  Their blackface comedy act consisted of Southern small-town humor and dance sequences.  Shuffle Along, the ground-breaking musical they created with Sissle and Blake, ran until 1924 and Miller and Lyles went on to write plays and make recordings, but the act broke up in 1928.  The performers reunited to appear on radio.  After Lyles’s death from tuberculosis at 48, Miller became increasingly engaged in the film business, moving to Hollywood to write and act in many motion pictures from the 1930s to the 1950s, including several black Westerns.  He died in Hollywood at age 86.

Jazz composer, lyricist, bandleader, singer, and playwright Noble Sissle, son of a minister and a school teacher, was born in Indianapolis.  As a youth, he sang in the choir of his father’s church and in his high school glee club before attending DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, and then Butler University in Indianapolis.  He left college to devote himself to music full time.  Just before the World War I armistice, Sissle joined the famed 369th Infantry Regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters, and performed as a singer, violinist, and drum major with the regimental band under ragtime and jazz bandleader Lt. James Reese Europe, mustering out after the war as a second lieutenant.  He continued with Europe’s civilian successor of the band where he worked with pianist-composer Blake.  The two musicians had met in 1915 in Baltimore, where Blake was born.  They started writing songs together and eventually appeared in vaudeville as the Dixie Duo before moving on to playwriting.  In 1923, following the success of Shuffle Along, the duo appeared in two sound films featuring songs on which the pair had collaborated.  Sissle made other films into the ’30s and in 1954 signed with Loew’s Theatre Organization to appear as a disc jockey at one of its radio stations on which he featured the music of African-American artists; he died at 86 in Tampa, Florida. 

Blake, born in 1887 according to official records (though he insisted it was 1883) to parents who’d been born into slavery, started music training when he was as young as four or five.  He was declared a musical prodigy but began his paying career as a pianist, unbeknownst to his parents, at a Baltimore brothel at 15.  He claims that he composed his first piece of music, “Charleston Rag,” in 1899, when he  12, but he didn’t yet know how to write music so it wasn’t written down until 1915.  In 1912, he joined Europe’s Society Orchestra (which played for the dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle) and after the World War, Blake rejoined Europe and his pre-war colleague Sissle until the two musicians formed their vaudeville act and went on to write songs and musical shows.  Twice-married, Blake was also known, much to his wives’ chagrin, as a ladies’ man; it became an open secret among the Shuffle Along company that the composer was in love with his leading lady, Lottie Gee (1886-1973), who also had considerable influence on the content of the musical.  (It was Gee who insisted that “I’m Just Wild About Harry” be rearranged from a waltz to an up-beat one-step.)  After Shuffle Along, Blake joined Sissle in the films that featured their work and a third of his own compositions.  Blake played for the USO during World War II and, after enrolling in New York University in 1946 (at the age of 59) when his career was diminishing, he saw the interest in ragtime pick up again in the ’50s and his career along with it, culminating in the 1978 Broadway revue of his songs, Eubie!, which ran for 439 performances (and was filmed in 1981).  He appeared on numerous television shows in the ’70s (including Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live) and received many honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Pres. Ronald Reagan in 1981.  Blake died at 96 (or 100, if you take his word for it) in Brooklyn.  (ROT contributor Kirk Woodward mentions seeing Blake perform in his article “Some Of That Jazz,” posted on 7 June 2015.)

According to the website for Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, which revisits the 1921 hit, songwriters Sissle and Blake and vaudevillians Miller and Lyles learned of each other from bandleader Europe.  The two teams met at an NAACP benefit in Philadelphia in 1920, and Miller and Lyles thought that one of their sketches, “The Mayor of Jimtown,” could become a full-length musical.  Though none of the four had ever written a musical play before or worked on Broadway, the result of their maiden collaboration was Shuffle Along.    

Among the play’s gifts was the hit tune “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” Shuffle’s most famous song (borrowed by Harry S Truman as the theme song for his 1948 presidential run), and the ballad “Love Will Find a Way” (of which the opening-night audience demanded an encore).  During Shuffle Along’s run, future black stars such as Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Florence Mills, Fredi Washington, and Adelaide Hall appeared on the Daly’s stage; the orchestra included future symphony and opera composer William Grant Still and Nat “King” Cole was a pianist on a national tour.  In the weeks that followed the opening, New York theatergoers from all over the city beat a path to Daly’s.  “It seemed to attract this highbrow/lowbrow, uptown/downtown phenomenon,” observed George C. Wolfe, director of the new re-examination of the play.  Among the ticket-seekers were so many fellow actors that Shuffle Along scheduled a midnight performance on Wednesdays so they could see the show.  The traffic along the upper-west side street became so heavy that the city had to make 63rd a one-way street.  

Among the famous figures who came to see the phenomenon were then-novice poet Langston Hughes, George Gershwin, singer-actress Ethel Waters, singer-movie star Al Jolson, Ziegfeld Follies comedienne Fanny Brice, esteemed African-American actor Charles Gilpin, and renowned theater critic George Jean Nathan.  A persistent tale, of which the new re-examination makes a major point, was that Gershwin stole riffs from Blake to create “I Got Rhythm” in a case of cultural appropriation.  Audiences at Shuffle Along were mixed, but the theater still segregated the spectators by race in the auditorium, even though they mingled in the lobby and the aisles during intermission and after the performance.  According to Wolfe, Shuffle Along was “the catalyst” for “different worlds . . . meeting on that stage, and backstage, and there was this connection.  And some people credit it with creating this energy in downtown culture at the time, where there was this phenomenon of slumming and going to Harlem.”

In the story of Shuffle Along, two crooked grocery store owners, Sam Jenkins (Lyles—in blackface) and Steve Peck (Miller—ditto) run for mayor of all-black Jimtown, Dixieland (“Election Day”).  (The two characters of Sam and Steve were longtime vaudeville personae of Lyles and Miller.)  The business partners promise each other that the winner will appoint the other police chief.  Honest Harry Walton (Roger Matthews), their opposing candidate for mayor (“I’m Just Wild About Harry”), pledges to put an end to the corruption, but he refuses to engage in his opponents’ dirty tactics and loses.  Harry’s engaged to the lovely Jessie Williams (Lottie Gee), but her father (Paul Floyd) won’t allow them to marry unless Harry wins the election (“Love Will Find a Way”).  Sam’s elected with assistance from Jimtown’s vote-buying political  boss, Tom Sharper (Sissle), and keeps his promise to make Steve chief of police.  The two politicians, however, quarrel over all kinds of things and they resolve their disagreements with an extended comic fight-ballet (“Jimtown’s Fisticuffs”).  Sam and Steve continue to  argue until their dishonesty and thievery is exposed by Jack Penrose, a New York detective known as “Keeneye” (Lawrence Deas), hired by Sharper.  Harry’s named the new mayor and runs Sam and Steve out of town. 

The show was interspersed with comedy blackouts and songs in front of the curtain essentially used to cover set changes.  (It was also rife with both black and rural Southern stereotyped behavior, jokes, and minstrelsy, including characters named Uncle Tom and Old Black Joe.)  The end of the performance has no dialogue after Harry’s inauguration, but Blake, who conducted the orchestra in 1921, came on stage and, joined by Sissle, stepping out of his role as Sharper, did a set of whatever they wanted from their songbook.  After the impromptu concert, Blake would return to the orchestra and Sissle resumed his role as Tom Sharper for the finale (“African Dip”).

After its initial New York run, Shuffle Along went out on tour, playing in Boston and Chicago and then continuing across the country to Milwaukee, Des Moines, Peoria, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Toledo, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Buffalo, Rochester, Philadelphia, and Atlantic City.  Still performing before mixed audiences, Shuffle Along did what no African-American show had dared in what were usually whites-only theaters. 

(Before the New York opening, Miller, Lyles, Sissle, and Blake previewed some of their songs for producer John Cort, 1859-1929, with the help of manager Al Mayer of the Nikko Producing Company, Shuffle Along’s production company.  Cort, for whom Broadway’s present-day Cort Theatre is named, was so taken by “Love Will Find a Way” that he financed a two-month tour to try the show out on the road, the company’s first performances before paying audiences.  Without scenery and using costumes pulled from stock, the show started in New Jersey, moved on to Washington, D.C., and Maryland, and concluded with a series of one-night stands in Pennsylvania.

(On a personal and nostalgic note, I was thrilled during Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, the reexamination of the 1921 hit, when D.C.’s Howard Theatre came up as the venue for the performance of Shuffle Along in Washington.  When I was a boy, my dad’s company, District Theatres Corporation, owned the Howard—though not until after World War II.  Long converted to a movie house, it still did a live show in those days: concerts by the likes of Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis, and native Washingtonian Duke Ellington, or comedy shows with “Moms” Mabley, “Pigmeat” Markham—in his first and second careers—and Redd Foxx.  I did a post on the two historical flagships of the company, “Lincoln & Howard Theatres: Stages of History,” 2 December 2011.)

Five-time Tony-winning director and producer George C. Wolfe (Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, 1993; Angels in America: Perestroika, 1994 – Best Play; Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk, 1996; Elaine Stritch At Liberty, 2002 – Best Special Theatrical Event; Take Me Out, 2003 – Best Play) began piecing together the story of how Shuffle Along came to be, having discovered that pretty much all the facts other than its historic run and some now-famous names had been lost to the footnotes of the history of the American musical.  There’d been a couple of revivals of Shuffle Along, but neither had been remotely successful: one in 1933 ran 17 performances and one in 1952 ran 4.  So Wolfe decided he had to do something different to bring this important piece of theater history back to the public’s consciousness.  Featuring the original show’s music and lyrics by Blake and Sissle, and a new book by Wolfe inspired by the 1921 text by Miller and Lyles, the new Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed (a title way too  long to be this report’s headline!) simultaneously tells the backstage story of Shuffle Along’s creation—and how it changed the theater world it found when it arrived on Broadway. 

Born in Frankfort, Kentucky, Wolfe, 61, is also a playwright and lyricist, having penned the books for 1992’s Jelly’s Last Jam and 2000’s The Wild Party, in addition to Shuffle Along: The Making (as I’ll call the new show for short to distinguish it from the original musical), and the lyrics for Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk in 1996 (which he also conceived).  He studied theater at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and then got an MFA from the dramatic writing program of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1983.  After writing his first play, Tribal Rites, or The Coming of the Great God-bird Nabuku to the Age of Horace Lee Lizer (which the playwright described as “some sort of homage to Abraham Lincoln”), while teaching in inner-city Los Angeles (it was produced in L.A. in 1977), he had some success Off-Broadway in New York with the musical (with composer Robert Forrest) Paradise (1985, Playwrights Horizons) and the play The Colored Museum (1986, Joseph Papp Public Theater); in 1989, Wolfe won an Obie for best Off-Broadway director for his adaptation of three Zora Neale Hurston tales in Spunk (Joseph Papp Public Theater). 

Wolfe leapt to national renown in 1991 with his L.A. staging of Jelly’s Last Jam, a musical about ragtime and jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader Jelly Roll Morton with Gregory Hines in the title role, which moved to Broadway in 1992 and garnered 11 Tony nominations.  That was followed in 1993 by his Tony-winning production of the first part of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and in 1994 by the second part.  From 1993 to 2004, Wolfe served as artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater (the second successor to founder Joseph Papp).  While in that post, Wolfe created Bring In ’da Noise, Bring In ’da Funk with young Savion Glover (1995), which moved to Broadway in  ’96.  In 2000, he co-wrote the book and directed the Broadway production of Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party.  After leaving NYSF to pursue film directing, Wolfe staged many New York productions, including the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winner by Suzan-Lori Parks, Topdog/Underdog, at the Public in 2001 and on Broadway in 2002.  He’s active in civil and human rights causes and was installed in the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2013. 

Shuffle Along: The Making started previews at the Music Box Theatre on West 45th Street, west of Broadway, on 15 March and opened on 28 April for an open-ended commercial run.  It was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, but won none.  It did win four Drama Desk Awards, including Outstanding Musical, out of seven nominations, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical.  My friend Kirk Woodward, his daughter Erin, and I saw the new musical on Wednesday evening, 15 June.  (The show’s producers have announced Shuffle Along: The Making’s unexpected closing for 24 July; see my exit comments below.)

It’s substantially from this historical material that director and book-writer Wolfe composed the narrative of Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.  Wolfe’s intent is to demonstrate the historic and social importance of the original creation and its phenomenal success to modern American theater and culture, and black history.  He wants then to go on and examine “how something could go from so significant to ending up as someone’s footnote.”  The director/book-writer asserts that Shuffle Along “just seems to me this seed from which a whole lot of other things sprang forth. So when you’re in the historical moment the show is set in, you feel you’re in that moment, but you’re also in 2016 . . . .”  

Act one of the new meta-musical is the backstage saga of “the making” of 1921’s Shuffle Along, and act two is “all that followed,” covering both the response by the American theater and the American public and the after-history of the artists involved in the sensation that was Shuffle Along.  (The original Miller-Lyles “Mayor of Jimtown” plot of Shuffle Along was jettisoned, which is clearly why the 2016 Tony committee wouldn’t let Shuffle Along: The Making compete as a revival.  Aside from the Blake-Sissle score, this is an entirely new play, telling a totally different story from its 1921 source.)

The act one-act two split is why I found myself a little disturbed by the ending—really the whole second act.  It’s such a downer—nothing but disputes, rivalries, jealousy, break-ups, bad luck—and finally deaths.  After the exuberance of act one, it’s a come-down.  Given the material Wolfe’s working with—the history and the aftermath of Shuffle Along—I don’t see what else he could have done—but I wonder if there isn’t some other route he could have taken than the one he chose.  I get that this is part of his point—he feels that Shuffle Along, and especially the creative and participating artists, have been forgotten by theater and cultural history (as critic and patron of the Harlem Renaissance Carl Van Vechten, 1880-1964, played by Brooks Ashmanskas, sings prophetically to the show’s creators towards the end of the play: “They won’t remember you!”)—but maybe that isn’t the only way to conclude the play.  I’m no playwright, so I don’t know what else a writer might come up with—but just because something’s true doesn’t mean you have to use it in the play (or novel or movie, or whatever).  I said something very similar with regard to John Patrick Shanley’s Prodigal Son (see my report on 28 February 2016), and George Bernard Shaw, who knew a thing or two about playwriting, wrote (in his preface to “The Six of Calais”): “Life as we see it is so haphazard that it is only by picking out its key situations and arranging them in their significant order (which is never how they actually occur) that it can be made intelligible.”  (I note here that Kirk Woodward has written a five-part response to all Shaw’s plays and prefaces, which he read in one sitting, and which I’ll be posting in installments shortly on this blog.  This statement, one of two Kirk quotes on the same point, is in the last section of Kirk’s series, which will be entitled “Re-Reading Shaw.”)  In any case, I haven’t decided how I feel, as a consumer, about this ending.  I’m unsettled, so to speak. 

I reported that Kirk and his daughter were my companions for this show, and naturally we’ve talked about it some afterwards.  When I raised these second thoughts about the play’s ending, Kirk, who is a playwright (including of musicals), responded, “It seemed to me that the structure of Shuffle Along[:The Making] resembles that of [Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1986] Into the Woods.  In the first act adversity is overcome and everyone is exhilarated at the end of the act.  In the second act, trouble—a giant, or envy and competition—enters the picture and the whole thing turns gloomy.”  I hadn’t considered this structural parallel (I haven’t seen Into the Woods since 1988), but Kirk continued, “I also think that Wolfe is committed to educating his audience, and finds it almost impossible to finish with a ‘happy ending.’”  A bit later, he added, “I’m afraid he just feels the burden of history too heavily to, for example, let the show end with its opening (if the musical could have been stretched out that long—this is just theory).”

I’d been thinking the same thing about Wolfe’s tendencies.  But as I said, just because it happened in history doesn’t mean it has to be part of the play.  It’s not, however, that it ruined the performance for me.  It just bothers me a little—dramaturgically.  Shuffle Along: The Makings hardly a documentary play (though a couple of reviewers did use that term to label it), but one of the criticisms of that form is that it’s often better history/current events than it is drama/theater. (I wrote an article on the documentary play, “Performing Fact: The Documentary Drama,” in which I touch on this issue.  The article was posted on 9 October 2009.)  Wolfe’s proclivity, if Kirk and I are right in parsing it, may fall into that trap.  (I gather, however, that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mega-hit Hamilton doesn’t go there—if the audience and critical response is any indication.)

The work of Shuffle Along: The Making—especially the “presentation” (I haven’t come up with a better word yet)—is terrific.  I like the presentational style (to use the same word in a different sense) and the “present reference” (as when Lottie Gee/Audra McDonald talks directly to the band in the pit) a lot.  I don’t know if Wolfe meant it to—I suspect he did—but it was reminiscent to me of vaudeville itself (which is where Lyles, Miller, Blake, and Sissle all came from, of course).

By presentation I mean more than just the staging.  It’s the aggregate of Wolfe’s directing, Savion Glover’s magnificent choreography, the acting, acting style, and ensemble work, all as an expression and out-growth of the staging concept—the “look” Wolfe conceived above and beyond the stage design (Santo Loquasto’s scenery, Ann Roth’s costumes, Scott Lehrer’s sound, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting—all of which are evocative, witty, and delightful) in coordination with the musical direction of Shelton Becton.  It’s the way Wolfe and his whole team stage the material, the way they show it to us.  Part of that concept is the presentational style of performance, which includes direct address to the audience or the breaking of the fourth wall, the theater expression that means that instead of the audience and the performers being in separate planes, with the dimensional “wall” across the proscenium opening, the actors and the play lower that barrier and relate to us in real time and space, as if we’re all in the same room.  (The opposite style is “representational,” meaning that the actor’s inhabit their characters and aren’t present as performers or for us as people.  They exist in a world into which we can see—that fourth wall is, of course, invisible—but in which we can’t participate.) 

Another manifestation of the presentation style Wolfe and his company devised is what I called present reference, defined as a character’s acknowledgment of people, objects, or actions on stage with them.  (Present reference is one of the connective devices I discuss in “Theatrical Structure,” 15 and 18 February 2011.)  It draws us into the real-time event occurring on stage while were in the theater with the performers (that is, the performance), rather than watching a representation of events, real or fictional, that occurred at some time in the past and are being recreated for our consumption.  It’s a way of nudging us to look critically at the actions being demonstrated for us, in this case the creation of 1921’s Shuffle Along and its aftermath, rather than becoming emotionally absorbed into a fiction and abandoning our objectivity.  (For those who haven’t already tumbled to it, these are Brechtian practices, but they’ve been incorporated into mainstream staging techniques.)

In terms of performances, Shuffle Along: The Making is an odd duck.  The cast’s loaded with stars, emerging stars, and A-list Broadway actors—Brian Stokes Mitchell (2000 Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Kiss Me Kate) is Miller, Brandon Victor Dixon (2004 Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Hedwig and the Angry Inch) is Blake, Joshua Henry (2007 Drama Desk Award for In the Heights) is Sissle, Audra McDonald (6 Tonys—a record, 5 Drama Desks, 1 Theatre World) as Lottie Gee, and Brooks Ashmanskas (2007 Tony and Drama Desk nominations for Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me) plays an assortment of very important figures in the history—which isn’t a common pathway to ensembleness.  Yet that’s what Wolfe and his troupe have wrought—and it’s fabulous to see.  (Billy Porter, who usually portrays Aubrey Lyles, was ably replaced the evening we saw Shuffle Along: The Making by Arbender Robinson, Porter’s understudy.)  Despite their distinction as “stars,” these five actors blended in splendidly with each other and the rest of the company, who each often stood out as one or another of the several characters they played in the Shuffle Along saga. 

Additionally the performance of Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed is such a whirlwind of action, dancing, singing, and scenes (some short, some extended—Shuffle Along: The Making is a 2¾-hour performance with one intermission) that it’s difficult to spotlight any single performance.  If forced, I’d have to note Mitchell’s suave yet earnest F. E. Miller and McDonald’s monumentally talented and confident leading lady, Lottie Gee.  (In McDonald’s hands, Gee’s scene with replacement actress Florence Mills, 1895-1927, played by Adrienne Warren, training her how to put across a song the right way, is endearing—and not a little daunting.  Not long before seeing Shuffle Along: The Making, I watched the actress’s portrait of Billie Holiday in the HBO broadcast of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill and the difference between her assured Gee and the disintegrating Holiday is remarkable.) 

I can’t really write a report on this show without at least mentioning Glover’s choreography.  Glover, of course, has been a dance phenom since he first tapped onto the scene in The Tap Dance Kid (1983) when he was 10.  Not only is his dance style exciting and powerful, with his signature loud, hard taps, but he passes this power along to his dancers, whether they’re students he’s teaching (which he’s done since he was 14 in Newark, New Jersey) or pros he’s choreographing, as here.  (Glover had to invent his own dances for Shuffle Along: The Making, which make no pretense of hewing to period style, since the dances of Lawrence Deas, the original’s choreographer, have been lost.)  He’s also learned, as exemplified in Bring In ’da Noise, how to make tap, traditionally used in theater to invoke high spirits and exuberance, express some more complex emotions like anger, pain, and sorrow.  You can’t really miss Glover’s hand (or foot) in the dances of Shuffle Along: The Making—his tapping is uniquely his own, and works so well with this production.  (Of course, he and Wolfe have a long history of collaboration starting in 1992 with his performance as Young Jelly in Jelly’s Last Jam, so their names are sort of linked, at least in my mind.  In a move that’s now obviated, Glover was slated to join the cast of Shuffle Along: The Making on stage on 26 July, though his role in the musical had not been determined.)

Based on a survey of 46 reviews, Show-Score gave Shuffle Along: The Making an average of 84, with 87% positive notices, 13% mixed, and just 2% negative.  That’s not a surprising spread, given the quality of the work.  Let’s see what the reviewers have said.

Among the highest-scoring notices was Elysa Gardner’s in USA Today, in which she declared that despite what might be called the Hamilton Effect, Shuffle Along: The Making “qualifies” as “an event.”  (Gardner went on to quip: “. . . and not just for the length of its title.”)  Asserted Gardner, “The stars, all excellent, provide portraits that are at once recognizably human and lavishly entertaining” and the production “also benefits, greatly, from the exuberant gifts of choreographer Savion Glover.”  In the end, the USA Today reviewer labeled Shuffle Along: The Making “exhilarating” as a “tribute” that “burns . . . brightly.”  Also high in Show-Score’s survey was the New York edition of London’s Financial Times in which Max McGuinness wrote that the “Pirandellian meta-musical is at once an old-fashioned all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza and a thoughtful meditation on the history of race relations.”  And while McGuinness characterized Mitchell’s F. E. Miller as “Sidney Poitier-esque” (clearly meant as a compliment, but I wonder how welcome to Mitchell), the FT review-writer proclaimed that “[a]mid an all-round impressive ensemble,” the “real star power comes from Audra McDonald” who displays “infectious exuberance and sass.”  McGuinness did single out Ashmanskas “for the dexterity with which he performs all of the white parts.”  Overall, the reviewer for the Pink ’Un found, “Wolfe lays on the exposition a little thick at times.  But his Shuffle is a courageous work on many levels.”  In his assessment, McGuinness reported, as I have: “In a breach with musical convention, there is no happy ending.”

In the Wall Street Journal, several rungs lower on the ratings ladder, Terry Teachout made this comparison: “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’ve got to hock your Maserati to pay for the ticket.”  Teachout styled the cast “as charismatic as you’d expect,” praising Glover’s “near-nonstop choreography,” which the WSJ reviewer reported “explodes off the stage with the unrelenting impact of a flamethrower.”  He shifted gears after intermission, however, when “what had looked like a masterpiece goes flat and stays that way.”  Having “tried to cram two different but related shows onto the same stage,” Teachout asserted, Wolfe’s “problem is that the first act . . . is so viscerally entertaining that you can’t help but feel disappointed when the dancing stops and the talking starts.”  The review-writer felt that “the entire second half feels like an epilogue, an hour-long dying fall, and by the time it’s over, the sense of letdown is palpable throughout the theater.”  In Teachout’s estimation, “The fault lies in Mr. Wolfe’s understandable desire to tell the story of ‘Shuffle Along,’” which “has led him to stuff us up with too much information.”  Despite this drawback, the Wall Streeter insisted, the show has “countless excellences,” especially Glover’s “tap-driven choreography.”  Shuffle Along: The Making’s “a pure ensemble show, so none of the performances stands out from the whole, but all of them are comprehensively satisfying.”  If Wolfe “failed to weld the parts of ‘Shuffle Along’ into a convincing whole,” nevertheless, “his directorial touch is otherwise as sure as ever.”

In the Guardian, one of the lowest-ranked reviews on Show-Score, Alexis Soloski described Shuffle Along: The Making as “sometimes inspired and sometimes listless” with some scenes “dramatic, some didactic.”  Shuffle Along: The Making “comes to seem as much a lecture-demonstration as a drama.”: 

Wolfe’s script dispenses with Miller and Lyle’s contribution almost entirely.  (As the book relies on caricature, blackface, and elements of minstrelsy, one can see why.)  This devalues the book in favor of the songs—though Wolfe also wisely elides some of the less palatable numbers, like Uncle Tom, Old Black Joe and Oriental Blues—and undermines the argument for the importance of the collaboration among these four men.

Furthermore, Wolfe’s production, said Soloski, “is only intermittently successful as art and diversion” as it’s “sometimes edifying and sometimes entertaining, but rarely do these twin aims coincide.”  The Guardian reviewer concluded, however, that “when the feet are tapping, the fringe is swaying and the voices of the leads and chorus are celebrating the thrill of syncopation . . . the musical lives again.”

The New York Times’ Ben Brantley called Shuffle Along: The Making a “tart and sweet, bubbly and flat, intoxicating and sobering concoction” which, he said, “has been suffering from an identity crisis.”  Is it “old or new?” asked Brantley, answering, “. . . both, though not in the ways you might expect.”  The “old-as-the-Rialto story line”—the tale of “those beat-the-odds showbiz soaps,” as the Timesman put it—“is . . . what’s new,” but it’s also “what feels stalest.”  It’s the singing and dancing, though, that “makes the reincarnated ‘Shuffle Along’ one of the season’s essential tickets.”  Unfortunately, Shuffle Along: The Making “time-travels with plenty of baggage, which Mr. Wolfe unpacks with pedagogical annotations and sentimental mistiness.”  Brantley reported, “Often you sense that Mr. Wolfe has a checklist of historic points he must, but must, cover before the show’s end.” These “Wikipedia-style biographical summaries delivered to the audience” are “clunky, shoehorned-in exposition,” but they don’t “overwhelm the sweeping grace of ‘Shuffle Along’ whenever it sings or dances.”  The Times reviewer had great praise for all the lead performers, though he singled out McDonald as “a one-woman time machine de luxe,” but he added that they “all more or less manage to bend their distinctive charismas into the sinuous contours of early Broadway jazz.”  In Long Island’s Newsday, Linda Winer declared that Shuffle Along: The Making, which she “bottom-lined” as “Extraordinary, talent-stuffed musical history,” “is not a conventional show,” adding, “Nor should it be.”  The musical’s “a bold and wistful, playful and important musical-about-a-musical.  It is overstuffed with ambition and talent, sure, but why shouldn’t it be?”  In a show with “dual missions—education and entertainment, . . . there is a lot of exposition, a few too many back stories and, every so often, the narrative inertia of an illustrated history.”  Then the Newsday reviewer went on, “But what illustrations these are—choreographed for the terrific dancing chorus by Savion Glover.”  With lavish compliments for both the cast and the design team, Winer concluded, “It is hard to imagine a better group than this one, finally, to tell the world about ‘Shuffle Along.’”

Joe Dziemianowicz of the New York Daily News felt that Shuffle Along: The Making “dazzles like no other show this season—but it also disappoints,” despite “an all-star cast and a bang-up group of hot-footed hoofers.”  Reported Dziemianowicz, “When the cast is singing and tearing up the floor with choreographer Savion Glover’s muscular and thrilling tap-dancing it’s pure unmitigated heaven,” but he went on to complain that “between numbers, biographies are sketched out and behind-the-scenes blow-by-blows are shared” which “turns entertainment into dull lecture hall.”  The Daily News  review-writer explained “Stretches of hearing ‘and then we wrote’ and ‘then we went to Baltimore’ are a drag.”  With praise for the cast, especially McDonald, Dziemianowicz ended by observing, “Even though the narration lacks drama, the tap-happy new show gleams with ambition and topnotch talent.”  In amNewYork, Matt Windman also raised the question of whether Shuffle Along: The Making “is a new musical or a revival” and then stated, “Whether old or new, it is a hot mess of the highest caliber—a dazzling and dizzying documentary mixed with star turns, syncopated rhythms, stylish attire, fierce tap-dancing and weak subplots.”  Windman described the experience as “like climbing aboard a rocket that doesn’t stop spinning” as “‘Shuffle Along’ throws at its audience nonstop sound and fury and historical detail.”  He complained that “the storytelling is chaotic and choppy, and the characters are painted in broad strokes” and added that act two “comes off as superfluous.”  Suggesting that “something so experimental and ambitious needs more development,” Windman acknowledged, “Still, there’s no denying its thrills and palpable excitement.” 

Christopher Kelly of  NJ Advance Media, publisher of the Newark Star-Ledger, characterizing Shuffle Along: The Making as “a kind of Broadway version of VH1’s ‘Behind the Music,’” described it as a “proudly flashy, impressively ambitious show.”  Kelly felt that the musical “sometimes bites off more than it can chew” and that with six principal characters, “keeping track of their assorted backstories and rivalries proves daunting.”  While the “first act is a particularly fluid dramatization and distillation of a tremendous amount of historical information, presented through a series of razzle-dazzle, tap-heavy production numbers . . ., the second act seems to meander—until the show abruptly concludes with a ‘where are they now’-style epilogue.”  The Jersey reviewer reported that Wolfe assembles “a dream team” of a company that performs with “unadulterated joy,” but while he “does a fine job conveying the social and cultural complexities” of Shuffle Along, “some of the essence of the source material is lost.”  The New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli promised that Shuffle Along: The Making’s not “an earnest history lesson,” but “a crackling, high-energy tribute to the joys of creating entertainment.”  The musical remake “packs in an inordinate amount of music . . . and dance,” wrote Vincentelli.  “You’re always looking forward to what choreographer Savion Glover will come up with next, and his set pieces here are just thrillingly fun.”  The Post reviewer reported, “The pace doesn’t flag until sometime in the second act,” and the show ends “on a bittersweet note, though without dimming the immense joys that preceded.”

In the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” section, the reviewer, calling the production a “razzle-dazzle history lesson,” described Shuffle Along: The Making as “one showstopper after another” with “sumptuous costumes . . . and sets.”  The New Yorker writer noted, “Though he tries to avoid making a musicalized PBS special, Wolfe finds much importance, but too little drama, in his behind-the-scenes story,” though the anonymous writer found that “his stagecraft is insurmountable.”  With a “a fine design team, and a dream cast,” wrote the Village Voice’s Elizabeth Zimmer, the “wonderful thing about Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed . . . is that it’s about working, about creating jobs for folks who couldn’t get good ones.”  In Wolfe’s production, the “talent keeps coming at you.  There’s strong music and movement by a crackerjack ensemble . . . and blizzards of Glover’s tap choreography, historically on point and inventive.”  Zimmer was so impressed with the production’s designers that “[a]fter a few minutes I stowed my notes and surrendered to the sensory overload,” even though “[t]here’s not much of a book.”  She noted, “The structure is a picaresque: one crisis after another, a chronology rather than a web of connections between people with real feelings.”  Furthermore, Zimmer found, “Act II unspools with a dying fall.”

Shuffle Along: The Making “is explosive not simply in the auditory sense,” proclaimed Jesse Green in New York magazine, “though the shattering artillery onslaught of Savion Glover’s choreography may ring in your ears . . . forever.”  Act one, said Green in one of Show-Score’s highest-rated notices, may make you “feel that the outer show . . . is one of the best old-fashioned entertainments—tunes, dances, comedy, costumes, the whole hotcha package—to hit Broadway in years,” but, the man from New York explained, Wolfe “has been preparing you from the start for Act Two: the ominous ‘All That Followed,’” in which he “lets the story elements peter out.”  Wolfe’s argument “about cultural appropriation” that occupies act two “is theatricalized quite stunningly,” using all the director’s “passion and accumulated know-how.”  The New York reviewer praised Shuffle Along: The Making as “expertly staged,” and was especially impressed that it was “lit gorgeously—often terrifyingly.”  He described act two as “a series of solo psychodramas in song,” each of which Wolfe makes “a powerful statement of suffering.”  Green continued, however, that “this is almost too much undramatized richness, without enough context to help us understand” and concluded that “if Act Two sometimes seems like a PowerPoint presentation, with astonishing slides but bullet-point arguments, the show as a whole is nevertheless revolutionary theater.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney declared of Shuffle Along: The Making, “Scene after scene dazzles in one of the most electrifying entertainments on Broadway.”  Indeed, he reported, “It's almost impossible to stay still in your seat when the internally motorized ensemble of Shuffle Along explodes into one of choreographer Savion Glover’s seismic tap routines, or when the thoroughbred leads wrap their velvet pipes around those syncopated jazz sounds.”  Even “if the resulting historical reappraisal is more successful at charting the creative high than the deflating hangover that came after,” added Rooney, “the performances alone make it unmissable” despite “Wolfe’s overstuffed shambles of a book.”  And “while the showmanship is extraordinary” and the “cast is magnificent” (with extraordinary plaudits for McDonald), the HR reviewer continued, Shuffle Along: The Making “spreads its focus among five principal characters, leaving it without a strong protagonist or a unifying point of view.”  As a result, “it works better as the reanimation of a lost Broadway milestone than a portrait of the creative team behind it,” nevertheless, “the project’s strengths far outweigh its flaws.”  Rooney lavished praise on Glover’s “astonishing’ work and the “top-notch” visuals, but “Wolfe’s book exacerbates that by attempting to cover too much and sacrificing focus,” resulting in a “loss of buoyancy” as “too much of the concluding information is imparted documentary-style.”  The review-writer concluded, “However, even if the structural limitations of Wolfe’s undertaking are unable to support the scope of his noble intentions, it’s a genuine thrill to watch this outrageously talented cast.” 

In Time Out New York, David Cote dubbed Shuffle Along: The Making “a breathtaking piece of showmanship, featuring more talent crowding a stage than pretty much any other Broadway show,” that “is part archaeological dig, part documentary, part Afropunk collage of fact and fantasy.”  The show has “outstanding design” and “miles and miles of ecstatic, syncopated genius, courtesy of Savion Glover.”  The cast, said the man from TONY, is “incandescent” and Wolfe’s staging is “a constant flow of miracles,” but while the “first half is sensational; the second is difficult,” though “there’s an abundance of joy and style that smooth[e]s over stylistic rough edges and knotty stitching of history to myth.” 

Marilyn Stasio bluntly asserted in Variety, “‘Shuffle Along’ is to die for.”  Calling Shuffle Along: The Making a “dance-drunk show,” Stasio went on to write, “In his zeal to illustrate the full impact of this landmark production, helmer (and book writer) George C. Wolfe piles it on, stretching the show’s baggy structure all out of shape.  But an incoherent book seems a small price to pay for the joy of watching Audra McDonald cut loose.”  Lavishly praising the production, from the acting, to the dancing, to the designs, to Wofle’s staging, Stasio acknowledged that in act two, “the show is actively fighting with itself.”  Wolfe, she asserted, gets caught up in “rich material, but he really should have stopped himself from cramming it all into this show.”  In Entertainment Weekly, Caitlin Brody quipped that Shuffle Along: The Making “is a refreshing burst of energy, no caffeine necessary.”  She asserted that “the jazzy musical boasts so much star power, at times it seems unfair to the rest of the Broadway circuit.”  Choreographer Glover’s “rhythmic tap is the true pulse of Shuffle Along[: The Making].  The clickety-clacks heard from 30-plus dancers at once . . . ignite every seat in the theater and quickly become the only beat we need.”  Despite its length, Brody reported, Shuffle Along: The Making “never feels long—it’s a dazzling production that celebrates art, dreams, and equality.”  The EW reviewer ended her notice with a telling little anecdote: “And when the man behind me emphatically screamed out, ‘Damn!’ after the final number, I had to nod my head and agree.”

On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart called Shuffle Along: The Making “an enchanting night on old Broadway, overflowing with talent and kept in constant motion by the brilliant choreography of Savion Glover.”  Stewart described the Brechtian and meta-theatrical elements of the production—the projected scenery and song labels at the top of the proscenium, the actors’ acknowledgment of the orchestra and the audience, and even the way the show begins with the sounds of a dance rehearsal coming from behind the closed curtain—and catalogued some of the “impressive moments from this star-studded cast,” lauding many of the individual performers.  “While the singing and acting is top-notch,” insisted Stewart; however, “it’s the dancing that really wows” as “Glover exceeds all expectations with his heart-pounding and scrupulously constructed choreography.”  Calling the production “exuberantly directed” and “brilliantly choreographed,” with “a large, to-die-for top to bottom cast,” Elyse Sommer of CurtaniUp characterized Shuffle Along: The Making as “a most enjoyable, invigorating new look at a savory and worth thinking about slice of musical history.”  The first act “is a sensationally entertaining homage” with “so many riches that it’s easy to forgive its somewhat disappointing execution of the . . . second act” with its “lecture-like format.”

On Deadline, Jeremy Gerard made an astonishing declaration: “Shuffle Along, or The Making . . . is an angry musical, its solid outrage sublimating not into bitterness or brutality but instead into a kind of suffusing sorrow over the cultural loss that is as fundamental to the legacy of racism as its more violent aspects.”  Gerard characterized Wolfe as “a writer and director blessed with the sharpest mind, the quickest wit, the wildest imagination and the fastest mouth in town”—and then he added one more “ingredient”: “I don’t know any other artist of Wolfe’s stature who has channeled rage into so brilliant and identifiable a catalogue raisonné.”  Out of these characteristics, Gerard considered that Shuffle Along: The Making arose.  But the cyber reviewer complained that the show, while “unquestionably entertaining,” “never resolves into a story.  Instead, it’s a series of historical scenes that tell, rather than show, and that’s deadly for a musical.”  Furthermore, while the physical production “has the confident, polished look of a no-expense-spared endeavor,” the Deadliner found that the show “struck me as both rough and unfinished.  It falls or flies on its kinetic energy, but the tap dancing is muddy,” for which he faulted Glover.  “More important,” Gerard continued, “the show is conceptually flawed.”  Still, such a fan of Wolfe’s is the reviewer that “I want to see all of his work, for all of it engages and challenges and even entertains me, even when, in the end, it doesn’t come together.”  Michele Willens of Theatre Reviews Limited described Shuffle Along: The Making as “a rather original hybrid of entertainment, story telling and history” in which act one “is pretty much pure joy from start to finish . . . chock full of dancing, song, dazzling costumes,” but act two “sort of loses the emotional threads and becomes more of a history lesson.”  This didn’t bother Willens, she said, because “I appreciate when dots are connected and knowing where all these folks ended up,” but she added later, nevertheless, “You can almost feel the energy dissipating as we get near the end.” 

The “opening night of the legendary Shuffle Along . . . caused a sensation,” Carol Rocamora reminded us on Theater Pizzazz.  “But I can’t imagine it being as sensational as its re-imagined reincarnation.”  In Rocamora’s view, “The joy of Wolfe’s Shuffle Along lies in the fabulous song-and-dance numbers” based on the “remarkable combination of energy and precision” of Glover’s choreography “that has audiences jumping to their feet, cheering in exhilaration.”  The show is performed by “an amazing all-star cast” on “Santo Loquasto’s sleek, snazzy set.”  The TP reviewer ended by saying of the play’s conclusion that she “found it especially touching.”  On Broadway World, Michael Dale declared that Wolfe’s “exhilarating” Shuffle Along: The Making “may not be perfect, but damn, it’s brilliant.”  The first act, reported Dale, is “lightening-paced” and by the time it’s over, “[t]here's little plot left, save for a series of disappointments.”  Nonetheless, continued the BWW reviewer, “that doesn't mean the second half is lacking in exciting moments.”  The Wrap’s Robert Hofler remarked, “In a year of pandering, corn-pone musicals, ‘Shuffle Along’ exudes elegance and intelligence at every turn.  While it’s big in its ambitions, theatrical thrills, and the emotions it stirs, Wolfe achieves much in very small ways.”  In another of Show-Score’s high-ranked reviews, one of two in the cyber press, Hofler continued that “whenever their words threaten to turn into a Wikipedia entry, Wolfe the writer hands the reins to his better half: Wolfe the director,” getting “an assist” from choreographer Glover.  “Both,” asserted the Wrapper, “have no equal on Broadway this season.”  “‘Shuffle Along’ abounds with such moments of inspired simplicity,” advised Hofler, “and that sophistication is reinforced by the work of veteran designers Santo Loquasto, Ann Roth, and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.”

Calling Shuffle Along: The Making an “extravagant new venture,” Matthew Murray explained on Talkin’ Broadway that it “doesn’t exist to relive or teach the past, but rather explain its role in creating the present we now enjoy.  And it does by blending the vocabularies of the early 20th century and 2016 into a single dramatic language that doesn’t look, sound, or feel like anything you can see anywhere else.”  Proclaimed Murray, “This is an evening that is packed, adventurous, and, in its own lighthearted way, powerful, though it never loses sight of what it’s saying or where it’s going.”  As for the production, the TB blogger asserted, “It’s a thrilling kaleidoscope, both comfortable and unpredictable, that translates for us a vernacular we no longer speak as a culture” with “electrifying” dances by Glover that are “a heady fusion of timeless tap-hearted hoofing and the edgier, more experimental stuff for which he’s acclaimed.”  Nonetheless, the show “suffers from two big problems.  First is that we don’t see (or hear) enough of Shuffle Along in context to judge it against our own standards. . . .  And the second act . . . lacks the dynamic narrative thrust of the first, and struggles to maintain the same vibrancy.”  In the other high-scoring cyber notice, Steven Suskin called Shuffle Along: The Making “a theatrical explosion” on the Huffington Post and reported that “the standard theatrical elements—music, story, staging, dancing and design—[are used] to propel the show in a novel and exciting manner” provided by “stellar performances, a sterling production, and an astoundingly talented ensemble.” In Suskin’s view, director Wolfe and choreographer Glover, “[e]ffortlessly avoiding the familiar or cliché, . . . have come up with a fascinating, colorfully grand entertainment.”  The HP reviewer summed up with, “But among a surfeit of riches, it is the combination of Wolfe and Glover that makes Shuffle Along[: The Making] a veritable explosion of theatricality, an unorthodox and vital new-style Broadway feast.”

On WNBC television (New York’s Channel 4), Robert Kahn characterized Shuffle Along: The Making as an “amalgam of backstory and revival” that’s “a passion project” for Wolfe.  Employing “the finest Broadway talent,” Wolfe’s production “is stylized to evoke an era and focus on big scenes, which can become burdened with exposition,” pushing “individual personalities into the background, which keeps us from getting to know better the ensemble players.”  Despite “elaborate tap sequences” brought to life by Glover, lamented Kahn, the show “is moving, in fits and starts.”  Despite “a large ensemble which dances and sings with precision and joy,” WNYC radio’s Jennifer Vanasco complained of Shuffle Along: The Making that “after an exuberant, thrilling first act, the weight of all that history drags down the second.”  Characterizing the show as “one long coda—a ‘whatever happened to . . .’ narrative,” Vanasco found that “Wolfe invests so little time in the dreams and motivations and backstories of his characters in the first act that we don’t feel emotionally tied to them in the second,” which, she reported, “is something to endure, instead of something to enjoy”—though the “first act is really astonishing.”  Mark Kennedy of the Associated Press described Shuffle Along: The Making as “a genre-jumping show, something not comfortable in one box.  It’s not a rev[ue] or revival,” Kennedy thought.  “It’s more like a history lesson that will blow you away.”  He reported, “There is a bit of bloat, too much exposition . . . but Wolfe nicely captures the timeless craziness of creation and the glory days of a special show.”

[On 10 May, Audra McDonald announced that she’s pregnant and would leave Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed on 24 July for maternity leave.  (The show’s producers also announced that Savion Glover, Shuffle Along: The Making’s choreographer, would be joining the cast on that date.)  On 23 June, however, the producers of the remake of the 1921 musical-theater sensation announced that the production can’t continue without McDonald (though a replacement, Grammy Award-winning singer and musician Rhiannon Giddens, had been named and had started rehearsing) and consequently that the show would close on 24 July, the date the cast changes were scheduled to happen.  In a written statement, Scott Rudin, the show’s lead producer, explained, “Audra McDonald is the biggest star on Broadway, and audiences have been clamoring to see her in this role since the first preview of ‘Shuffle Along’ in March of this year.”  He added that “the need for Audra to take a prolonged and unexpected hiatus from the show has determined the unfortunate inevitability of our running at a loss for significantly longer than the show can responsibly absorb . . . .”  According to a further statement, ticket sales, which had been running in excess of $1 million a week, have already dropped off severely for dates following McDonald’s announced departure.  When the $12-million Shuffle Along: The Making closes, it will have played 100 regular performances and 38 previews.]

23 June 2016

Parks Up & Parks Down

by Adrian Higgins

[The following article on New York City’s High Line Park is from the “Style” section of the  Washington Post 1 December  2014.  I have written an article on this New York phenomenon, “High Line Park,” posted on 10 October 2012.]

NEW YORK — On Manhattan’s Far West Side, they built an elevated railroad in the 1930s because freight trains and pedestrians kept colliding down on 10th Avenue. The trains won.

On the High Line today, the locomotives are long gone, and the pedestrians have emerged the victors. Seven days a week, a shifting throng simultaneously observes and forms its own pageant. By 10 a.m., the early joggers, commuters and yoga students have melted away before the arrival of the walkers, heading up through Chelsea or down to the Meatpacking District. They stop like currents in an eddy for a while, or they find a grassy backwater, but mostly they go with the flow. The polyglot visitors find a trendy destination, the natives a transcendental sidewalk that stretches a mile and a half, now that the third and last segment opened this fall.

The path narrows to just a few feet for much of its course, yet almost 5 million visitors pass one another every year in relaxed good cheer. Just five years after opening, the High Line has become one of the top visitor attractions in New York — more popular even than the Statue of Liberty — and an emblem of the reversal in the historical decline of the American city in general and Gotham in particular.

It has become an archetype for cities everywhere craving their own High Line mojo. In Washington, it is the inspiration for a proposed elevated park where the old 11th Street Bridge crossed the Anacostia River and, separately, for a component in the long-range redevelopment of Union Station.

The reasons for its broad appeal are both tangible and elusive but reduce to this: The High Line serves up the Big Apple on a platter 30 feet high. Look eastward, and you can savor the view of Midtown’s iconic skyscrapers. Look west, and the Hudson River lolls by, black and sparkling in the autumn light. The High Line takes you, voyeuristically, past the windows of high-rise offices and apartments and, increasingly, close to the swanky condos rising around it. You can look down to the bistros of the once-gritty Meatpacking District, or the leafy cross streets of West Chelsea, or the ribbons of silver commuter cars in the Hudson Rail Yards.

For all the attention-grabbing vistas, the focus eventually settles on the park’s interior character. It is a runway where people go to see and to be seen, like a return to the 19th-century promenade — synonymously a place and an act, where generations past put on their Sunday best and headed to the park, not to walk but to strut.

And while the High Line propels movement, “that doesn’t necessarily mean getting from here to there,” said Chris Reed, a landscape architect who teaches at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and who takes students to the High Line. “The act of the promenade is something we lost in the 20th century, and a project like this allows us to focus on just that, the experience of movement.”

The idea of reusing old transportation corridors is not new — in Washington, the C&O Canal, and the Capital Crescent and W&OD trails, are obvious examples of such reincarnations. But the High Line’s success has been so swift that its success appears in hindsight to have been preordained. This would be a misread.

From rail cars to wildflowers

After the last train squealed its way along the tracks in 1980, the High Line became just another peeling grave marker to old, working New York. In time, the rails took on a mantle of rust, and the rotting ties and track ballast turned into a growing medium for weeds. Some of the weeds took the form of pretty wildflowers — goldenrod, milkweed and Queen Anne’s lace; some were thuggish trees and vines. Together, though, they imprinted the idea of vegetation turning the High Line into a garden, however feral, apart from the city.

Robert Hammond and Joshua David, two civic activists who saw this potential, formed Friends of the High Line in 1999 and battled to save it. Over time, they marshaled the civic and economic forces necessary to succeed.

The first two sections, which opened in 2009 and 2011, run 20 blocks, from the Meatpacking District north through West Chelsea, and cost $152 million to design, engineer and reconstruct. The new phase, called the High Line at the Rail Yards, which officially opened in September, initially cost $35 million, though it is a scaled-back segment that will be structurally rehabilitated in about a decade as the adjoining rail yards become the platform for a whole new skyline above them.

The costs may seem high, but as the architects and landscape architects got down to work, they discovered that much of the infrastructure needed major renovation. The High Line is, essentially, an elongated rooftop garden, where the depth of the (highly engineered) soil is measured in inches rather than feet, and elaborate stormwater-management and irrigation systems lie hidden from view.

The clients — the Friends group and the city of New York — chose landscape architect James Corner Field Operations and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro to lead the design. The force behind the park’s formidable horticultural presence is a Dutch plant designer named Piet Oudolf.

Together they have leavened the directional nature of the experience through planting effects, including passages through woodland motifs, and with design elements in broader parts that offer places to sit, view commissioned sculpture and other art, watch performances, and generally experience urban culture while floating above the city.

The first section also contains a small, squared-off amphitheater whose stage is a glass viewing wall down to 10th Avenue, where Manhattan’s surly traffic is tamed as a form of animated entertainment.

The second segment is especially rich in its horticultural effects — a tunnel of trees called the Chelsea Thicket opens to a popular resting spot, with a lawn and banks of seats.

Keep going and you pass through an idealized and richly planted herbaceous meadow, until the line arcs westward to the new segment past the elegant lines of the Radial Bench.

The underlying design philosophy of the whole High Line, James Corner said, was to recognize the sheer power of its passage through the city and the drama of its years in the wilderness. The new section features a discrete children’s play area, but the High Line is free of dog runs, playgrounds and conventional park planting schemes. Bikes, skateboards and cigarettes are banned. The plants, now maturing, give the High Line its singular spirit.

“We wanted a wild, dynamic landscape that was interesting not just in winter, spring, summer and fall, but almost every week having different blooms and colors and textures and scents,” Corner said.

Beyond the average shrub

Piet Oudolf, the plant designer, turned 70 in October but has a timeless, rugged look about him that suggests a Viking elder. His passion for perennials and ornamental grasses was informed by German horticultural researchers and has been honed over a lifetime as a nurseryman and plant designer. He works out of his farm and trial gardens in the Netherlands, and is a well-established leader of a naturalistic movement in gardenmaking that is ecologically informed but artistically driven.

Among his high-profile commissions in the United States have been the Lurie Garden in Chicago, Battery Park in Lower Manhattan and, at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, the Seasonal Walk. He has yet to do a major project in Washington.

To achieve the dynamic qualities he is known for, Oudolf taps uncommon plant varieties and groups them in rich layers. This bestows them with texture, volume, movement and a vitality that persists after the top growth dies back at this time of year.

“I want to show the world there’s more than the average shrub,” he said. “I never go for the average.” Even plant geeks are caught off guard by some of his choices.

Todd Forrest, vice president of horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, said he was astonished to find on the High Line plantings of a wildflower from Arkansas named Penstemoncobaea. “I thought this was great — in the most highly designed of locations, you find a true curiosity.”

Oudolf also used an enveloping tunnel of bigleaf magnolia, a junglelike tree native to the eastern United States and hardy, but rarely planted outside arboretums.

In what’s known as the Wildflower Meadow, Oudolf developed a matrix of Korean feather reedgrass that slowly yields to a matrix of switch grass. Both are heavily interplanted with clumps of perennials chosen for their late season of bloom and interest.

The success and high profile of the High Line have served to put the practice of landscape architecture, so often overshadowed by architecture, into the limelight. The sophistication of the plant designs is undoubtedly lost on the great majority of visitors, but the effect — of a restless, changing, naturalistic form evoking the original wildflowers — is not.

“It should take you in, and you don’t have to know about plants,” Oudolf said. “You have to feel it.”

[Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Washington Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the Washington Post Garden Book and Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden.]

*  *  *  *
by Corinne Segal

[The following story on a new underground park beneath New York City’s Lower East Side, dubbed the “Lowline,” was broadcast on PBSNewsHour “Art Beat” segment on 29 October 2015, soon after the park opened to the public.]

NEW YORK — In a forgotten corner of the New York City underground, Dan Barasch and James Ramsey are growing pineapples.

“It’s ripe,” Ramsey said, examining a fist-size pineapple nestled between thyme, sage and dozens of other plants. “One bite of pineapple.”

These plants are the first step toward New York City’s first underground park — the Lowline, a project that has been in development for seven years.

The park, which is planned to open in 2020, will be housed beneath Delancey St. in New York City in a 60,000 square foot trolley station that was built in 1903, according to Barasch, the Lowline’s co-founder and executive director. The station served as a turn-around point for trolley cars running between Manhattan from Brooklyn over the Williamsburg Bridge, but stopped operating in 1948.

The Lowline Lab, a prototype and test drive for the project, is housed at 140 Essex St. in New York City, an abandoned space that formerly served as the Essex St. Market. The building’s age and layout is similar to the Delancey St. trolley station, Ramsey said.

Ramsey, designer and co-founder, had an idea for the project back in 2008 and teamed up with an engineer in South Korea to create new solar collection technology. They built a system that uses heliostats — or mirrors that track the sun — to collect sunlight from the exterior, drive it into a concentrating mechanism and then redistribute it to plants underground.

“We had to build this stuff — it’s never been done. So we had to learn from it, and learn how to deploy light in a way that keeps stuff alive,” he said. “The math all works. Now we have to couple that to horticulture.”

The team consulted with botanists and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden about what types of plants to grow in the underground space. Ramsey called the plants, which range from herbs to fruits and tropical plants, “a 3-D graph of light intensity.” They are also working with botany and landscape teams to track the plants’ growth and learn more about their reactions to the space.

In the early stages of the project, the team consulted with community leaders in the neighborhood. Their reaction: “Yes, unequivocally, unambiguously, we need more public space,” Barasch said. “People started hopping on board with the idea and saying, let’s really advocate for it.” It has additionally received support from local politicians, including U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kristin Gillibrand [both of New York].

They also plan to host community events, including a lecture series titled “Bright Eyes” for people in science, technology and design to share expertise. They have partnered with CityScience, a Brooklyn-based STEM education organization, to create science curricula using the space for the high school Young Designers program. That program began this month [October 2015] with 25 New York City public school students.

Their next goal is to raise $70 million to build the technology into the full space, Barasch said. So far, the  dollars in pledges.

[You can visit the Lowline Lab at 140 Essex St., New York City. You can access it Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. For more information, visit www.thelowline.org.]

18 June 2016

'Nora' ('A Doll House') – BAM, 2004

[I’ve just posted my report on the Scandinavian rep at Theatre for a New Audience (see 13 June), which included performances of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and August Strindberg’s The Father.  In passing, I mentioned that among the recent appearances of Doll’s House on New York stages was a German production entitled Nora in an updated adaptation from Berlin back in 2004.  I thought it would be interesting to post my pre-ROT report on that performance because it was quite different from Thornton Wilder’s adaptation that director Arin Arbus used at TFANA.  In fact, as you’ll read, I had some problems with the modernization—but I’ll let you discover what that’s all about for yourself.]

On Friday evening, 12 November 2004, I went to Nora, a new German version of Ibsen’s Doll House by Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, a Berlin company, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  Nora is the standard German title for Doll House, but this was more than just a new translation—and less than a full adaptation.  The pay is reset in the 21st century, both in look and in language, but everything from the original is still in this version—the Helmers are still Norwegians (that is, they weren’t transported to Berlin or something); Torvald (Jörg Hartmann) is still a banker; Nora (Anne Tismer) is still a stay-at-home wife; they still have three kids (Milena Bühring, Constantin Fischer, Robin Meisner); Rank (still a doctor, played by Lars Eidinger), Krogstad (Kay Bartholomäus Schulze), and Kristine (Jenny Schily) are all still there in the same relationships as Ibsen put them in; and, most significant, Nora has still secretly forged her father’s signature on the loan agreement with which she had borrowed money to pay for her and Torvald’s trip to Italy when he was ill.  There are a few minor changes—there’s no nurse in this version, and Helene, the maid, has become Monika (Agnes Lampkin), an au pair from Africa. 

According to the Schaubühne’s dramaturgs, the story of Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel’s adaptation of Nora for managing director Thomas Ostermeier is as follows:

Torvald Helmer has worked too hard.  So much, in fact, that he could die.  To raise money for a journey south that could save his life, his wife Nora secretly takes out a loan and forges her father’s signature.  This secret is her pride and joy, and the fact that she has to pay back the loan builds up her self-confidence as a woman in a male-dominated society.  Nonetheless, she continues to lead the life of a devoted mother and childlike, dependent wife whose main purpose in life is to create a cozy nest for her family.  When her con is revealed, her husband betrays her and sticks to his bourgeois principles.  Nora will leave him and her children; she will face an uncertain future.

The Schaubühne did make some more significant changes to the text/story to make it seem more current, however, and some of them seem to have diluted the original dramatic impact.  One isn’t very large—though the meaning is more significant than it might seem: Rank isn’t dying of cancer; he’s got AIDS from having been omni-sexual in his youth.  Now this may not seem like much of an alteration, but it strikes me as weakening Ibsen’s point—which is, itself, a little hard to buy today also.  Ibsen believed, as did many in his day, that moral corruption is manifested later in physical illness—and could be passed on, like a hereditary disease, to the children.  This was a pseudo-scientific belief in the late 19th century, and Ibsen used it in a more prominent way in Ghosts, of course—where Osvald’s father’s sexual profligacy is inherited by Osvald as syphilis.  What’s the difference between this and the new version?  Well, as I see it, cancer isn’t a disease we generally blame on willfully bad behavior—especially in the 19th century when no one knew about the connection to smoking and other carcinogenic activities.  So, if Rank has cancer and he blames it on his corrupt youth, then it must be some kind of moral retribution since the youthful behavior didn’t directly cause the cancer.  However, if he has AIDS because he had unprotected sex with men, his illness is a direct result of his willful behavior.  (Because the play is now set in the 2000s, he can’t even use the excuse that no one knew what caused AIDS when he engaged in the behavior—unlike I can say when I go to the dermatologist and have lumps cut off my skin because of sun exposure when I was 8 or 9 when no one knew suntans and sunburns were actually carcinogenic.) 

Unless you subscribe to the notion that AIDS is God’s punishment for gays, the moral element has been erased from the situation.  (As I said, this aspect of the play is hard to play today, but it only works at all if the play remains set in the 19th century when people actually believed this theory.)  This is somewhat more significant than just as an element in the Rank-Nora subplot—the same theory is applied to Krogstad, who is considered to be morally corrupt and therefore a danger to his family, especially his children.  It is this moral corruption that permits Torvald to reject Krogstad and forces Krogstad to blackmail Nora with the letter and loan document he leaves for Torvald at the end of the play.  It is also this belief, which Krogstad explains to Nora, that impels her to leave her children when her transgression has been revealed—she can’t stay in the house with them for fear that she’ll infect them with her corruption.  Without this motivation, she doesn’t have to leave, and the play’s ending becomes a purely selfish act and has no dramatic strength.

Now, if all that’s true—have I convinced you?—then the other, really big change in this version has even greater repercussions.  According to the New York Times review, the company wanted to restore the shock Ibsen’s original audience felt at the end of the play.  (According to theater history, there were even riots when the play opened in Europe when Nora leaves, it was such a unheard-of action.)  If you haven’t read the review then you would never guess what translator/adapter Schmidt-Henkel did.  He has Nora shoot Torvald before she leaves.  And it’s not just one quick shot—she unloads an automatic pistol into him, even as he’s writhing on the ground, half in the giant fish tank that’s a prominent part of the starkly modern apartment set conceived by Jan Pappelbaum (and lit by Erich Schneider).  Okay, this is shocking, but it changes the whole dynamic of the ending, and makes Nora into a straight-out murderer rather than a distraught but enlightened woman who acts out of what she believes is selflessness. 

First, for her departure to be justified, she still has to believe that by staying, she endangers her children.  That’s hard to do in the 21st century, but with the “evidence” of the physical manifestations of mortal corruption no longer as clear as it was in Ibsen’s original, it’s even harder.  Second, Torvald’s only real fault is still that he doesn’t leap to Nora’s defense when he learns of her forgery on the loan document—just like in the original, he fears for his position at the bank and that Krogstad will now be able to manipulate him.  Perhaps even more today than in Ibsen’s time, this comes off as a supremely egocentric posture, and that makes him a chauvinistic pig, as we used to say—but it’s hardly a capital crime.  It justifies leaving him—maybe enough today not to need the matter of corrupting the kids—but hardly shooting him.  So, instead of being a brave and selfless woman, Nora’s a fugitive from a murder charge—and maybe even nuts.  This alone changes the entire meaning of the play.  The shock may have been restored, but it’s shock for its own sake, as a theatrical effect, not based on dramatic necessity. 

I suppose that’s enough to make the translation/adaptation questionable, but there were other problems I had with this show.  I know that Europe is behind the U.S. in enfranchising women, especially in the marketplace, but they’re not 50 years behind.  [At the time I wrote this report, a woman was the head of one of Germany’s major political parties, the Christian Democratic Union.  A year after I wrote this, in 2005, Angela Merkel was named Chancellor of Germany; in this country we’re just now celebrating the nomination of the first woman as a major party’s presidential candidate—11 years later.]  It’s hard for me to accept that a woman as self-consciously modern as Nora here—the costume she wears to the Christmas party isn’t some peasant outfit so she can dance a tarantella; she goes in complete punk get-up, blood smears and all (costumes are designed  by Almut Eppinger), and does a techno dance (of which the Germans are fond, I believe)—could be so bereft of options that a) she has to forge her father’s signature for a loan and b) she can’t resolve the problem by some more rational means than either leaving or, even more drastically, shooting Torvald.  The whole idea of the “doll-wife” (and that expression is still in the German text, by the way: Puppenfrau) is a throw-back, even in Europe today.  In fact, moving the whole thing up to the 2000s seemed to make everything a little incredible—contrived, I guess.  Instead of an indictment of a social problem that the playwright saw as universal, this version makes the whole thing a play about a seriously dysfunctional couple and their dysfunctional friends.  (I ought to add, too, that the very idea today that a sick man had to go to Italy to recover—and that this was his only remedy—is hard to buy also.  Germans still believed in “taking the cure”—going to a health spa for mineral baths—at least when I was living there, but needing to go south for one’s health is still pretty much an anachronism—more like Death in Venice than 21st century.  It’s another aspect that really has to remain in Ibsen’s own time to work.)

There was some problem with the acting—I presume the direction of Ostermeier, really—too.  The actors were good, and I didn’t have any problem believing them in their roles/situations most of the time (aside from the problems of the script above), except that every so often they went off their rockers emotionally for no apparent reason or motivation.  One character might all of a sudden shout (or bark) at another, or another character would behave as if he were in the grips of an epileptic fit or some other odd physical condition and throw himself about the stage violently.  (The final shooting was sort of like this.  Nora had the gun—she was contemplating suicide—but she’d put it away and had even gone off into her room off stage.  Then she came out, pointed the gun at Torvald for a few seconds, and started pulling the trigger again and again.)  Now, maybe I missed something in the German text or in the translation (titles), but I don’t think so.  (Those titles were a problem, too.  There were three screens—one just below the raised set of the apartment, but its text was pretty small for us in the mezzanine; the other two were on either side of the stage, but far enough away from the set that you couldn’t read them and watch the action at the same time.  Just to make it harder to follow, the dialogue came fast at times and the titles showed nearly every line so the screens changed rapidly, much faster than you could go back and forth.  I really wish my German were still good enough not to have had to refer to them as much as I did—even though I knew the play fairly well, having taught it up at the State University in Oneonta a couple of years earlier.  I did want to see what the translator did with the text.)  It doesn’t help matters that the performance was two hours and ten minutes without an intermission—and the Harvey Theater’s seats are not soft!

Anyway, the experience was disappointing, but not actually bad.  I pretty much concluded that updating Doll House isn’t profitable—you lose too much that isn’t made up in the modernization—but it was interesting to see the attempt.  It also made me reconsider the original—and how good Ibsen was at constructing plays to say what he wanted, such that trying to make them say something else in part destroys them.  Ironically, I also concluded that though Ibsen must remain in his own period for the plot to work, the drama—the point, the message, the theme—still communicates to a modern audience.  I mean, we may no longer believe in the nonsense of moral corruption = physical decay, but if we accept that they did, we can still see Ibsen’s point about trust and respect and honesty within a marriage.

[As I noted above, I saw Nora on 12 November 2004, but the production ran at BAM’s Harvey Theater from 9 to 13 November 2004.  Nora had its première at the Schaubühne in 2002.

[I didn’t do the review round-up back in ’04, so I’ll pick up a few notices that are still on line a dozen years later.  (BAM shows often don’t get a lot of coverage even today because their runs are so short and there are no previews a reviewer can see before opening.  Nora only played in New York for five evenings; a review written on day one would appear in print with only four performances left—if it came out on the next day.  Programs like BAM’s Next Wave Festival or the Lincoln Center Festival frequently get put off in favor of regular Broadway and Off-Broadway runs that get next-day publication.)  Since I didn’t do a survey, the only notice I saw before now was in the New York Times.

[The Times’ Christopher Isherwood called Ostermeier’s staging “slick,” but advised that “you have to listen carefully to hear the impact.” The “highly regarded, provocative” director making his U.S. début with Nora, “pumps up the volume in more ways than one in his brash contemporary gloss on” A Doll House.  “At unexpected intervals, the characters emit strange, sudden shrieks or fling themselves into the giant aquarium that dominates the living room,” reported Isherwood. “And as promised, the play ends not with a housewife's quietly delivered manifesto, followed by a seemly exit, but with an act of unexpected violence.”  [This was the passage I alluded to in my report above, by the way.]  “This strikingly designed, sensitively acted production,” asserted the Timesman, maintained an “overriding fidelity to the trusty mechanics of Ibsen's drama”; far from being “a radical, mind-bending reimagining,” the production was “a clever but essentially naturalistic updating, with a few eccentricities tacked on here and there, often, you suspect, simply to amp up the quirk factor.”  As one example, Isherwood described how Ostermeier's “actors are sometimes allowed to indulge in bursts of physical or vocal hysterics that are more showy than revealing.”  While Ostermeier’s adaptation “translates the play's social dimensions,” acknowledged the Times reviewer, he found that “it also violates its spiritual ones.”  Isherwood seemed to have agreed with me, at least somewhat, about the new ending: “In altering Ibsen's ending, Mr. Ostermeier has drawn a veil across Nora's spiritual awakening.” 

[In the Village Voice, Michael Feingold summed up one view of the Schaubühne’s Nora:
In 125 years of audiences, undoubtedly many women have wanted to shoot Torvald Helmer, but most directors, male or female, would hesitate to louse up a great play by turning the famous door-slam into a gunshot.  Leave it, one might say, to the Germans.  Thomas Ostermeier, artistic director of Berlin’s Schaubuhne, has managed, by giving Torvald a gun for Nora to borrow, to louse up not only a great play but what was in many ways a great production.  The gun wasn’t his only dumb idea: The one question in my mind is which will remain stronger in my memory of this Doll’s House after months and years have passed—the frequent brilliance of the acting and directing, or the equally frequent lapses into directorial self-indulgence.  It’s aesthetically unjust for an artist so gifted to be so foolishly wasteful of his gifts.
Feingold explained that “the element in the play that Ostermeier’s gunshot effectively killed [is] Nora’s spiritual transcendence.”  The Voice reviewer had many of the same complaints that the Times’ Isherwood and I voiced, so I won’t quote them again just to prove we all seemed to agree.  Like the man from the Times and me, Feingold also found that the cast’s “five principals were uniformly excellent,” giving “lively and detailed performances” that were largely wasted on Ostermeier’s self-indulgent production concept “to prove that he was up-to-date.” 

[Variety’s Marilyn Stasio capsulized her opinion thus:
It would be too easy to dismiss “Nora (A Doll’s House),[“] a trendy modernization of Ibsen’s seminal 1879 drama, as hopelessly wrong-headed.  For all the sound and fury of its iconoclastic production . . . this German import never makes its case that the European hausfrau of today is as enslaved to bourgeois convention as her 19th century sisters.  Still, the boldness of Schaubuhne artistic director Thomas Ostermeier’s smash-and-burn concept and the fierceness of Anne Tismer’s attack on the leading role make for invigorating theater.
Stasio conceded, “This is a production that grows on you—if you can survive the initial onslaught of the f/x staging, blood-sport performance style and rock-concert decibel level.” 

[In a wrap-up of 2004’s year in theater, Michael Lazan wrote of Nora in Backstage that Ostermeier’s adaptation “thrillingly manages to raise questions about violence as a legitimate reaction to social decay.”  The Backstager described the play’s last moment: “When Nora ends the play by shooting him to a bloody pulp, the audience watched, slack-jawed.  Quite an event it was.”

[On the website TheaterMania, David Finkle asserted that Ostermeier “tries hard to stun the complacent bourgeoisie with his Nora innovations, yet all of the rambunctious activity has a ‘been there, done that’ quality.  This includes the new ending, which calls for Nora Helmer to wave a gun where Ibsen has her merely slam the front door as she leaves her domineering husband.”  With the cast—except Schily’s Kristine, but including the children—behaving “as if their inhibitions have long since evaporated,” lamented Finkle, Ostermeier’s attempt “to reinvigorate Ibsen, . . . betrays him.”  The TM reviewer’s final words lined up pretty well with my conclusion above: “What we need is . . . the realization that a truly shocking new production of A Doll’s House would be a first-rate treatment of the unaltered original manuscript.”]