NEW YORK — Audience education is certainly on director George C. Wolfe's agenda in his eagerly anticipated, luxuriously re-upholstered revival of the early 1920s musical "Shuffle Along." In fact, the goals of correcting the record so vie for primacy with the values of first-class entertainment in this vibrant, didactic, at times breathtaking and other times slightly condescending enterprise that you sense a war still raging, over what exactly the show is striving to be.
Call it a musitorial: The tutorial portion — determined to plant in your mind an appreciation for the African-American trailblazers whose success with "Shuffle Along" has been washed away by history — threatens to overwhelm the savvy show-business aspects of this backstage musical, which had its official opening Thursday night at the Music Box Theatre. The lengths to which Wolfe goes to try to broaden a spectator's perspective even seem to be reflected in the mouthful of a subtitle he tags onto the project: "Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed." (A commemorative replica of the original 1921 program is inserted in your Playbill.)
Were it not for the array of buoyant talent assembled here — a dazzling roster headed by Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter and choreographer Savion Glover — "Shuffle Along" might feel too unresolved and heavy-handed to stay afloat. But in concert with Glover, who marshals a cadre of tap dancers for an exhilarating series of numbers, including one for the song "Shuffle Along" itself, Wolfe offers up the kind of sensational musical interludes that recall the pizzazz and bite of his 1996 Broadway hit, "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk." Glover's top-notch work shows up repeatedly, as in a traveling sequence, in which the dancers move as if they were the syncopated pistons of a locomotive, and in a showdown number between two rival productions, choreographed as tap combat.
McDonald, who's won more Tony awards personally (six) than the vast majority of Broadway shows have ever won collectively, is of course featured prominently here, and as a result of the acumen she exhibits on this occasion for tap, soft shoe and scat-singing, a theatergoer will be forgiven for wondering if she could also design your next home, paint your likeness in the style of Rembrandt and perform a one-woman stage version of the Bible. Here she portrays Lottie Gee, a black actress of the day who zealously guards her prerogatives as one of the stars of "Shuffle Along," even as she plays a mere supporting romantic role in the life of Eubie Blake (an excellent Brandon Victor Dixon). He's one of the musical's songwriters and also a married man who, Wolfe asserts here in his revised book, never quite gets up the courage to leave his wife.
Wolfe has made characters of all four of "Shuffle Along's" creators: the composers Blake and Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry), and the book writers F.E. Miller (Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (Porter). The tension rises as they shape the show out of town, short on money and attempting to reconcile their differences. Blake and Sissle, trying to bring their newfangled jazz compositions to Broadway, clash with Miller and Lyles, ambitious though hidebound vaudevillians who still perform in blackface. They all narrate for us too, a device that like the protracted struggle that consumes most of Act 1, feels a bit labored. Still, the production number that sends us into intermission, a sterling staging of "I'm Just Wild About Harry" adorned by Ann Roth's gorgeous chorine costumes, arrives to bolster our spirits in the nick of time.
Mitchell is a commanding Miller, although the emotional tenor of his partnership with Porter's Lyles remains a bit blurry. Dixon and Henry have more success with the turbulent arc of Blake and Sissle's relationship; the second act recounts the collapse of the four artists' alliance and the descent of three of them into obscurity. (In his 80s, Blake was "rediscovered" and enjoyed a resurgence in popularity.) It's intriguing, meanwhile, to watch McDonald embody her imperious, insecure character as Lottie strives to remain relevant in a business with woefully limited options for her. McDonald gets better as Lottie grows more desperate, especially when she's confronted with a brilliant young newcomer, Florence Mills (played to seductive perfection by Adrienne Warren). The advanced skill level of this cast extends, too, to Brooks Ashmanskas, who plays (and dances mightily well) as all of the ancillary white characters, from "Shuffle Along's" producer to a critic who blithely consigns the song and book writers to Broadway oblivion.
While the memory of "Noise/Funk" is summoned in some of the pointed commentary of "Shuffle Along" — as in a sharp scene making the allegation that George Gershwin copied key notes of "I Got Rhythm" from a Sissle and Blake song — the Wolfe show of which it is most reminiscent is one he created on the occasion of the 2002 refurbishment of Harlem's celebrated Apollo Theatre. "Harlem Song," like "Shuffle Along," was designed to aquaint audiences with the story of the vital cultural contributions of black writers and performers. What he said about it to me at the time seems to apply equally to "Shuffle Along": "The exercise for me is to make a populist piece of theater that is very theatrical and entertaining and includes the texture of historical events."
"Shuffle Along" is richly ornamented, in ways that include Santo Loquasto's appealingly versatile set pieces and Daryl Waters's refined orchestrations. But it's also so intent on righting what Wolfe views as a historical wrong that it does come across as a message-laden exercise. The joy here is lessened by the lesson.
Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and all that Followed, music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, original book by F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, new book by George C. Wolfe. Directed by Wolfe. Choreography, Savion Glover; music supervision and orchestrations, Daryl Waters; sets, Santo Loquasto; costumes, Ann Roth; sound, Scott Lehrer; lighting, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. With Darius deHaas, JC Montgomery, Arbender Robinson, Christian Dante White, Amber Iman. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Tickets, $79-$375. At Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.