Two very different musicals are wrapped up into one bewildering package with the New Group’s “Black No More,” which opened Tuesday night off-Broadway.
Part of the show is an occasionally on-the-money satire about a fictitious device from the 1930s that can turn black people white. The poetic opening narration brings to mind “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” But what follows is an unnecessarily bombastic melodrama that makes “Les Misérables” look like “Blue’s Clues.”
2 hours, 30 minutes, with one intermission. The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.
Choosing both paths renders “Black No More,” based on George Schuyler’s 1931 Harlem Renaissance novel, a deeply uncomfortable experience for its audience — not because the fascinating material probes the ugliness of racism, but due to how poorly the story has been handled theatrically. The show is a mess that’s beyond repair.
The start of “Black No More” is mostly in line with Schuyler’s novel: a vicious satire that was ahead of its time in its critiques of whites, blacks and class and race disparities.
Max (Brandon Victor Dixon) is a Harlem black man who, disenchanted with life, signs up to use Dr. Junius Crookman’s (Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought of the Roots) experimental Black No More machine to change his skin color. In the sole smart choice of the evening, Dixon’s appearance isn’t altered by a mask or makeup; we use our imagination to picture his new look based on how he’s described.
Now named Matthew, he moves to Atlanta to seek out a white woman named Helen (Jennifer Damiano) he danced with on New Year’s Eve at a juke joint. (In the book, Helen says only, “I don’t dance with [N-word].” The musical changes that up to flesh out a more sympathetic character and make her, I dunno, just half-racist? It doesn’t work.)
When Matthew arrives in Atlanta, he finds Helen at a Ku Klux Klan-like group called the Knights of Nordica led by her father (Howard McGillin). Matthew joins up with them and rises through the ranks. The Knights wear cream-colored suits, sing silly old songs and act, appropriately for this story, cartoonish. Thus ends the satire portion.
Funnyish in parts, the humor is not deftly enough handled onstage. And lyrics sung by racist white Southerners — “God blessed the Caucasians / God blessed this plantation / [N-word], Jews and Asians / Are all less than crustaceans” — are disturbing and upsetting without being profound. The N-word is thrown around way too flippantly. And while, sure, it establishes some characters as evil, it’s also used mostly by white characters in up-tempo songs and raps. Nobody wants that.
Then comes the overwrought drama portion, in which you can sense lyricist and co-composer Trotter compromising to not stray too far from what we expect of a traditional musical. Almost nothing from the gonzo ending — there are enough endings here for an entire theater season — comes from the book.
Yet somehow out of that breezy read, some 36 forgettable hip-hop and jazz songs have been drummed up. (No wonder, since the score has four composers: Trotter, Anthony Tidd, James Poyser and Daryl Waters.) Bill T. Jones tends to over-choreograph them, while director Scott Elliott under-stages them. They’re performed on Derek McLane’s set of a brick wall with giant red-and-blue letters that read “HARLEM” and “NORDICA” depending on where we are. Um, we don’t need it to be spelled out that we’re in Upper Manhattan or at a Klan meeting; the difference is obvious.
The tunes are lifted up by one of the best casts in New York — every single person is a glorious singer and actor. The musical is a colossal waste of talent.
Dixon, who’s been on Broadway in “Hamilton” and “Shuffle Along,” has the clearest role, but the under-baked supporting characters tend to get better music. He has a strange direct-address speech about ending hatred that — even though the audience agrees with him — comes out of nowhere.
There’s the astounding Ephraim Sykes (who had been cast as Michael Jackson in “MJ” on Broadway, but dropped out due to scheduling) playing a friend of Max’s named Agamemnon (mentioned in the novel just three times), who gets to do almost nothing.
Another pumped-up role is that of hair salon owner Sisseretta, played by the powerful-voiced Tony winner Lillias White. The musical’s moral center is furious about what the Black No More machine is doing to her beloved Harlem, and that’s about it.
Tamika Lawrence is a smash as Buni, Max’s best friend in New York, who comes to Atlanta to find him. Her singing is otherworldly, but as written in John Ridley’s book that changes the part to a woman, her arc is a jumble.
Look to Spike Lee’s excellent movie “BlacKkKlansman,” about the real story of a black FBI agent who joined the Ku Klux Klan to spy on them, for a master class in how to turn laughing at ridiculous racists into gasps of horror. “Black No More,” which has pipe-dream Broadway aspirations, should sign up for it.