Brian Stokes Mitchell
Seeing Brian Stokes Mitchell sing in concert should be among the list of things you must experience before you die, like Venice, the Pyramids, and the Grand Canyon. It is not just that he is a tall handsome Broadway baritone, but that he is one of a disappearing breed that can command a stage with a rare combination of confidence, charisma, and humility that informs and empowers a baritone voice so rich and powerful, it could fill a stadium. All of this was completely evidenced in his magnificent appearance at Sanders Theatre this past Thursday, 23 January, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.
The one-act program was an obvious one, based on his CD "Simply Broadway," containing songs sung by characters he’s either played on stage, or would like to play, which in lesser hands could have come off obligatory and narcissistic. Mitchell avoided this pitfall, using clever arrangements, created by talented musical director Ted Firth, as well as his own innate ability to be inspired by his characters and the songs. The combination of breezy musicality and an honest, personal and heartfelt delivery made each song fresh and unique.
Prior to his Broadway career, Mitchell did a 7-year stint on TV’s "Trapper John, M.D." in the ’80s, after which he shifted his focus to the stage, starring in an all-black revival of Gershwin’s "Oh, Kay!," and "Jelly’s Last Jam," and as a replacement for Valentin in "Kiss of the Spiderwoman," before his breakout role as Colehouse Walker, Jr. in "Ragtime," which landed the first of four Tony nominations. Two more came from "King Hedley II," and "Man of La Mancha". He won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical as the lead Fred Graham in the revival of "Kiss Me, Kate". "Glee" fans might recall his single episode appearance as one of Rachel Berry’s gay dads, opposite Jeff Goldblum.
Surprisingly, his "Simply Broadway" program only plucked a few numbers from this roster, including his second number, "I, Don Quixote," from "Man of La Mancha," during which he unleashed his commanding bel canto, adding nuance with both Spanish and English lyrics, and wielding the mike stand as a javelin for added theatrics. His a cappella opening on the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley anthem "Feelin’ Good" ("The Roar of the Greasepaint-The Smell of the Crowd") demonstrated some elegant moves as he used his long slender hands to first create fish swimming in the sea, then transitioning seamlessly to the fluid movement of a river with waving fingers as his arm slowly retreated.
He later showed what a skilled dancer he is, busting some fun moves in "It Ain’t Necessarily So" ("Porgy and Bess"), ending flat on his back in a faint, only to instantly revive and lead the audience in a sing-along. He balanced all this high drama with a series of elegant offerings, such as a tender, intimate "How to Handle a Woman" ("Camelot"), an inspired "Finishing the Hat" ("Sunday in the Park with George"), and a riveting and reflective "What Kind of Fool Am I?" ("Stop the World, I Want to Get Off"), given a heavenly introduction by Ted Firth, as effervescent as a spring morning.
I suppose you can’t blame any accomplished Broadway baritone for including the requisite "Stars" ("Les Miserables") or "Soliloquy" ("Carousel") in their program, and if you think you’d heard them enough or too often, you haven’t heard Mitchell sing them. His commitment during "Stars" was nothing short of stunning, and "Soliloquy" was every bit the tour de force act one closer Rodgers and Hammerstein meant it to be. He also returned to "Man of La Mancha" with a mesmerizing "Impossible Dream" during which you could hear a pin drop, followed by an instant collective standing ovation.
But for my money, Mitchell won the audience’s heart with his declaration that the high point of 2013 was the Supreme Court granting federal recognition to same-sex marriage, describing that now more of his gay and lesbian brothers and sisters have equal access to the institution that he and his wife have happily enjoyed for 20 years. He segued beautifully from that into Sondheim’s ode to marriage, "Sorry/Grateful" ("Company"), sung with care as advice offered to his LGBT friends as they newly embrace marriage. He followed that immediately with a transcendent "Some Enchanted Evening" ("South Pacific"), a role he played in a concert version opposite Reba McIntyre at City Center. As in the previous number, Mitchell switched pronouns each verse, singing first to a man, then to a woman, and finishing the song with a touching "once you have found him, never let him go." It was a version to savor and remember on this most enchanted of evenings.