Like its mouthful of a title, “Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” is not a conventional show. Nor should it be. Director/author George C. Wolfe has set out to reclaim a milestone in black entertainment, a long-running Broadway hit that, despite its huge influence, had dropped for what might have been forever off the radar screen of cultural understanding.
The result is 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? There is so much to tell and as much to soak in and enjoy, thanks to a thrilling A-list cast — including Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell — plus a top creative team.
This is also a show that wears its dual missions — education and entertainment — on its wittily costumed sleeve (costumes by Ann Roth). People who consider education incompatible with entertainment might want to forget I mentioned it. Indeed, there is a lot of exposition, a few too many back stories and, every so often, the narrative inertia of an illustrated history.
But what illustrations these are — choreographed for the terrific dancing chorus by Savion Glover with both a combination of the dazzling, syncopated black-tapping tradition and his own special full-footed, stomping identity. Mitchell, that charismatic smoothie, is our guide through the rise and fall of the four men who dared to give Broadway — or as close to Broadway as these men could get — a breakthrough book musical, not just another black revue.
Mitchell also plays F.E. Miller, half a famous vaudeville comedy act with Aubrey Lyles — portrayed with an almost profound sense of mischief by Billy Porter. Their collaborators are lyricist Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry) and composer/pianist Eubie Blake (portrayed with ardent, easygoing virtuosity by Brandon Victor Dixon).
If four main characters weren’t hard enough to keep clear as individuals, Wolfe wants us to know Florence Mills (Adrienne Warren in a career-making performance) and Lottie Gee, a diva forgotten by history. She is resurrected here by McDonald (warning, McDonald will leave the show to play Billie Holiday in London this summer) in a role that uses more of her apparent infinite variety of vocal styles — operetta to period jazz. She also scats, and taps, and shares a complicated love story with Blake.
Overhead titles take us through the show’s history on Santo Loquasto’s ingeniously draped set, while Brooks Ashmanskas embodies a wildly physical succession of obnoxious white people with astonishing charm.
Oddly, I couldn’t help thinking about another, very different historical musical, “Hamilton,” which ends with a question: “Who will tell your story?” It is hard to imagine a better group than this one, finally, to tell the world about “Shuffle Along.”