With "Shuffle Along," Brian Stokes Mitchell climbs another stairway to theater heaven

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NEW YORK >> Brian Stokes Mitchell jokingly sings a bluesy rendition of "Stairway to Heaven" by the time he reaches his dressing room on the fourth steep floor of the Music Box Theatre on Broadway.

"And she's BUY-ing a stairway to HEA-ven," he warbled between some huffs and puffs, still managing a wide smile despite the challenging climb. At the top, he's a gracious host: "You want anything? Food? Water? Oxygen?"

The flights are punishing once, much less the estimated 10 times a day he and his fellow actors must endure. "I think we may climb a few Mount Everests by the time the show is over," he said, preparing to eat dinner.

Mitchell, 58, finds himself in the same theater where he made his Broadway debut in 1988, when his dressing room was on the second floor. He's up with the stars now, and his new show explores the groundbreaking 95-year-old musical "Shuffle Along."

That musical was one of the first Broadway shows starring, written and directed by African-Americans. Director and writer George C. Wolfe has reframed the new one as a musical about the making of a musical.

Mitchell, who plays co-book writer F.E. Miller, is part of an astonishing collection of Broadway stars including Audra McDonald, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry, plus a talented ensemble of young people.

"It is the most amazing company maybe that I've ever worked with and I've worked with some amazing companies," said Mitchell. "Like I say, there's not a turd in the punch bowl." Then he laughs: "You sure you don't want some chicken?"

The show is the first time Mitchell has pulled on his tap shoes since he appeared in "Jelly's Last Jam" in the early 1990s, having replaced Gregory Hines as Jelly Roll Morton. Back then, Savion Glover was his co-star; now he's choreographing.

"I would lose 5 pounds in water weight each time doing that show. After that show, I retired my tap shoes. I said, 'You know what? I'm going to leave those to the people who really, really do this well,'" he said.

When he got the call about the new "Shuffle Along," Mitchell worried what a quarter-century had done to his abilities. He also wondered how his Achilles tendon, which had popped 10 years ago, would handle the new stress.

"What I found out is my feet are still pretty good but my brain is slow. Especially watching these kids do it," he said. "I mean, I was never able to pick it up as fast as they are, especially now."

Mitchell won a Tony for "Kiss Me Kate" and got nods for "Man of La Mancha," "Ragtime" and "King Hedley II." He's adored on Broadway for his warmth and his stories, lending his talent to all kinds of causes and leading The Actor's Fund since 2004.

Jonathan Kent, who directed Mitchell in "Man of La Mancha," said he leaned on his star's experience during the white knuckle ride of helming his first Broadway musical.

"He was so wonderfully supportive and generous. I think of him with such admiration and fondness," said Kent. "He's a supreme craftsman, too. I learnt so much from working with him."

Mitchell took a step back from Broadway while his son, Ellington — with his wife, Allyson Tucker — was growing up. He did concerts instead, giving him the freedom to make his own hours. Now his son is 12.

"He doesn't need me quite in the same way that he did. It was just time to do a Broadway show. I put it out there in the universe. I said, 'You know, I think it's time to do another Broadway show.' And literally two weeks later is when George called me. Ask and ye shall receive."

So despite the hike up four flights of stairs, Mitchell said he's happier than he's been in a long time, in a company of professionals telling a key story of Broadway's past.

"When I did 'Ragtime' it was a company like that. There was a sense that something very magical was going on. If you're lucky, you maybe get one magical show in your life," he said. "Well, here's another magical show."


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