I want you to imagine it is 1927; the week after Christmas. You have bought your tickets, and now your chilly bones sit in a dark corner of Florenz Ziegfeld’s Theater in New York. The billed show is Show Boat by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. But it isn’t starting; it has already begun. You’ve heard the overture by now, and seen all the major characters; a few musical numbers have gone by as Act I has stretched out like a smooth legato.
Now, Jules Bledsoe (as Joe the Stevedore) steps in front of the footlights. Slowly, the stage lights dim, and a lonely spotlight places him in high relief. Plaintively, he faces the audience. Then…with a brassy baritone…he belts out the first lines of “Ol’ Man River…”
No matter your impressions of the song—or of Bledsoe’s performance—a faint notion overcomes you: a major rite of passage in the theatrical world was just performed. Soon, the musical stage that you have come to know, right or wrong, will be washed away like newsprint at a recycling plant. Gone will be the trills and tremolos of the Viennese vocal school; gone will be the classical nonchalance of the European musical; gone will be the lush operettas of Victor Herbert; gone will be the tragi-comic novelty tunes of Harrigan and Cohan; gone, too, would be Ziegfeld’s Follies themselves, they too a relic pushed aside by a new musical era of sophistication and syncopation. From now on, black and Jewish influences will define the musical stage far more than the music of old Europe.
Based on Sybil Roberts Williams’ play The Lost Song, The In-Series’ production From Shuffle to Show Boat gives us a glimpse of this revolution before it has even happened. Some evening in 1927, the dawn sooner than anyone thinks, Fanny (Natalie Graves-Tucker) a composer who has “lost her song” mills about in the alley next to Cort’s 63rd Street Theater, a venue made legendary for producing the watershed 1921 black musical Shuffle Along, featuring songs by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle.
Four pieces from this musical are featured in the program: “Love Will Find A Way,” “I’m Craving That Kind of Loving,” “I’m Just Wild About Harry “(best known as Harry S Truman’s campaign song), and the comedic “If You’ve Never Been Vamped,” performed winningly in the ‘20’s vaudeville style. Though not remotely the best material of the evening, these songs are the pins that hold it all together, illustrating this new musical world that would soon invade Broadway.
Fanny is not alone on this evening. A half-dozen other characters have gathered outside Cort’s back door, passing the time, waiting for something undetermined. Each passes the evening talking, then singing, about the lives they have led. Natasha-the diva—quite naturally sings Victor Herbert’s “Art Is Calling Me” from his 1911 The Enchantress. Singer Laura Wehrmeyer’s lofty soprano, with an over-resonance worthy of a Victor Talking Machine record, nearly steals the entire show so early on. But just as the audience catches its breath, Richard Tappen, as Oliver, trumps her with another Herbert tune: “When Shall I Again See Ireland.” Imitating the sentimental immigrant ballads popular in ethnic theaters, this popular tune from the 1917 opera Eileen captures the romance of pining for home, while straining out most of the sap. Tappen’s emotional delivery makes a song I hadn’t heard before memorable.
Accompanied by Billie Whittaker on piano (Stanley Thurston takes over next week), and Dave Marsh on upright bass (Ephraim Wolfolk next week), the ensemble has a few moments as well. Led by Love ‘Em (W. Ellington Felton), its performance of Fats Waller’s “How Jazz Was Born” nails this piece’s thoughtful exuberance. T-Bone (Brian Q. Thorne), in turn leads them through James Johnson’s “Charleston.” An immensely popular tune of the time, the jumping rhythm influenced so much of Show Boat’s final act. The ensemble dances the tune in perfect comedic sync, well choreographed by Angelisa Gillyard.
Fanny’s performance of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” (one of three Handy tunes featured) is excellent, but anachronistic. Her smooth, sensual delivery is more evocative of a 1950’s cabaret singer backed with soft brushes on snares than the throaty, brass-backed shout of Bessie Smith’s famous recording from Shuffle To Show Boat’s era.
In all there are 21 songs in this all-too-brief program, each and every one of them sure to please lovers of music and musical theatre. But those intrigued by the history of musicals will be doubly satisfied to experience the subtle and often caustic ways black, ethnic, and classical influences were stirred together to produce the modern musical.
From Shuffle to Showboat
Book by Sybil Roberts Williams
Music Direction by Stanley Thurston and Billie Whittaker
Directed by Kenyatta Rogers and Angelisa Gillyard
Choreography by Angelisa Gillyard
Produced by The In-Series
Reviewed by Steve Hallex
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes with no intermission