From Bert Williams, the first African-American to star on Broadway back in 1903, to Billy (Kinky Boots) Porter’s Best Actor Tony win 110 years later and Norm Lewis, who made history just last month by becoming Broadway’s first African-American Phantom, the journey of the black actor on the musical stage has been brought to vivid, entertaining, and often moving life by the fabulous Arthur L. Ross in his one-man Hollywood Fringe Festival 2014 show Shuffle Along.
Starting the evening off with Wheeler’s “Nobody,” Ross continues the journey with “In Honeysuckle Time,” featured in the 1921 Broadway revue Shuffle Along (by pioneering writers Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake).
Other African-American entertainers making appearances along the way include Paul Robeson (“Old Man River”), Todd Duncan (Broadway’s original Porgy, who also starred in Cabin In The Sky and Lost In The Stars), Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and Sammy Davis (whose “While The City Sleeps” was introduced by Davis in Broadway’s Golden Boy and gets performed by Ross here to powerful effect).
Another highlight of triple-threat Ross’s 90-minute talent showcase is his tribute to personal idol Ken Page, who directed Ross in Ain’t Misbehavin’ for Cabrillo Music Theater in 2008, and whose “Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat” from the all-black 1976 Broadway revival of Guys And Dolls gets the Hudson Theatre audience to their feet.
A powerful “The Bus” (from 2004’s Caroline, Or Change) and salutes to 2014 Broadway stars Porter (Kinky Boots’ “Hold Me In Your Heart”) and Lewis (Phantom’s “The Music Of The Night”) bring Shuffle Along up to the 21st Century, providing an inspiring climax to the evening’s entertainment.
Directed with accustomed flair by co-creator Calvin Remsberg and impeccably backed by musical director Bradley Scott Hampton on piano, Shuffle Along features several dance sequences choreographed by Ross and Janet Miller. Black-and-white stills (and a terrific Bojangles dance sequence on video) provide visual illustration along the way.
A stirring salute to those African-American pioneers who opened doors for today’s Broadway stars, Shuffle Along also provides a couldn’t-be-better showcase for the multitalented Ross, one of our own Southern California musical theater treasures.