The revival of “Fully Committed,” now on Broadway, is being pitched in a very disturbing TV commercial, where the show’s star — and sole cast member — highly paid TV actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson shares how onerous it is to appear on Broadway. He notes the time commitment demanded as well as the reduced pay.
Perhaps Ferguson forgot that he got his start in New York theater. Perhaps the intention was ironic. No. The commercial is actually mean-spirited and demeaning to the hundreds of Broadway actors who work their hearts out eight times a week and the thousands more who would give anything for a chance to work. Having seen the show, one can’t help but think that if the sacrifice is indeed so great, Ferguson might have saved himself — and us — the suffering.
Over the course of about 85 minutes, Ferguson plays 40 different roles. The main one is Sam, the reservation manager at a swanky, impossible-to-book restaurant in Manhattan. Sam is kind of mild mannered and put upon, an actor doing this as his day job. He has to deal with patrons who will go to almost any lengths to get reservations, the enfant terrible celebrity chef who runs the place, various staff members, frenemy actors, and his recently widowed father who hopes Sam will get home for his first Christmas without his mother.
Ferguson has a warm demeanor and a charming stage presence but he is largely out of his depth in the piece. This kind of manic, solo piece requires absolute precision in the characterizations to work, and lacking that Ferguson resorts to stereotypical voices and mugging. So, by the time the shrewish and entitled Carolann Rosenstein-Fishburn calls for the fifth or sixth time, or the chef goes on about his helicopter to the Hamptons or getting a table for the inventor of “molecular gastronomy,” the characters have worn out their welcome. They become tedious and predictable, no matter how valiantly Ferguson tries to bring them to life. They’re one-note characters in a two-dimensional piece, and, really, one wishes they would just go away.
Not all the fault for this falls on Ferguson’s shoulders. The play debuted in 1999. It was a different time. In 2016, the trials of the one-percent (a term that didn’t exist 17 years ago) are simply not funny. Add to that the sad moral lesson that Sam must engage in the same distressing, mean, and manipulative tactics others use on him to accomplish what he wants. Sam is ultimately as corrupt as the people he hopes we’ll join him in deriding, and it’s hard to find him anything but pathetic.
There are so many repellant characters on the loose these days from politics to reality TV that one doesn’t need to drop a C-note (or more) to encounter more of them, vying for a table in a restaurant no less. You may think it’s worth it, but I have — wait for it — reservations.
By rights, “Shuffle Along” should be an extraordinary musical. Look at all it’s got going for it: Audra McDonald sounding as wonderful as ever. Brian Stokes Mitchell with his gorgeous baritone as a classic, elegant leading man. Billy Porter, marrying comedy and presence as only he can, terrific performances by Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry, and the dependable comedy of Brooks Ashmanskas. With heart-pounding choreography by Savion Glover, a new book by George C. Wolfe, sets by Santo Loquasto, and gorgeous costumes by Ann Roth, this production features more Broadway royalty than any show currently running.
There are moments that will take your breath away and songs that will move you to tears. Yet for all this intermittent virtuosity, the book never comes together in a strong narrative arc and the characters are not sufficiently developed to touch hearts.
The clue to why this has happened is in the show’s subtitle: “… Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed.” Essentially, the show is a documentary with songs. It’s a backstage musical that focuses primarily on the mechanics of getting the show together rather than a human story. The story is fascinating as theater history, but to work as theater relatable characters are essential. Instead they are distant, the show’s structure undermining their humanity. In short, “Shuffle Along” looks hot but at its center is cool.
The story traces the development and staging of “Shuffle Along” as the comedy team of Flournoy Miller (Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (Porter) teamed up with the songwriting team of Noble Sissle (Henry) and Eubie Blake (Dixon). With their star Lottie Gee (McDonald), they broke through racial barriers, staged the first love scene between black people on stage, and legitimized African-American theater, taking it out of minstrelsy. It became a huge hit. The latter part of Wolfe’s show traces the dissolution of the partnerships and, in a long finale, what happens to each of the major players and how they died.
Missing from the piece is more of the original show. The few songs — as well as the production number “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” probably the biggest hit still known from it — give a glimpse into what all the work and struggle was for. The current enterprise needs more of that both as context for the history and to make “Shuffle Along” more than just a stock show biz tale. It’s great to appreciate the important history here, but we also want to feel the impact of an American original that really did change show business forever.
FULLY COMMITTED | Lyceum Theatre | 149 W. 45th St. | Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $45-$147 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Eighty-five mins., no intermission
SHUFFLE ALONG | Music Box Theatre | 239 W. 45th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed, Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $79-$169 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 40 mins., with intermission