BWW Review: Some Enchanted Evening with Brian Stokes Mitchell at Celebrity Series of Boston
Brian Stokes Mitchell Simply Broadway
Tedd Firth, Piano
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston at Sanders Theatre, Memorial Hall, Harvard University, 45 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA, on Thursday, January 23, 2014; For more information, call 617-482-2595 or www.celebrityseries.org
The Celebrity Series is celebrating its 75th Anniversary Season of presenting world-class artists to Boston audiences and Thursday night's concert at Sanders Theatre at Harvard University was no exception. Having previously graced this stage in 2007 and 2010, baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell returned for his third appearance with his program titled Simply Broadway, featuring a play list from his 2012 CD of the same name and a handful of other musical theater selections, with the virtuosic accompaniment of Tedd Firth on piano.
A sign of his versatility, Stokes has been on television and in film, as well as performing on concert stages and in numerous Broadway productions. He won the Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Kiss Me Kate, and was Tony-nominated for Man of La Mancha, Ragtime, and King Hedley II. His audiences have included both President Clinton and President Obama at the White House. However, he enthusiastically and repeatedly expressed his feelings about playing at Sanders - "I love performing in this theater!" - and acknowledged the arts savvy patrons of the Celebrity Series.
In addition to his luscious, rich baritone voice, one of the things that makes Stokes special is his singular ability to act the song. Although he was doing a solo act, he was "joined" on stage by a cast of characters, taking on a different persona for each of the many show tunes he sang. He was a little crazy as Don Quixote ("I, Don Quixote"), a little resigned as Tevye ("If I Were a Rich Man"), and both tough and tender as Billy Bigelow in a very moving "Soliloquy." He showed some comedic chops as Lancelot in his rendition of "C'est Moi," and, as the slick and sleazy Sportin' Life ("It Ain't Necessarily So"), the singer became a nimble dancer and did his best to get the audience to participate in a call and response on the verses.
Stokes is a polished performer whose banter between songs is natural and relaxed. He talked about marriage equality and his own marriage of nearly twenty years to segue into Stephen Sondheim's "Sorry/Grateful" from Company, cleverly alternating the pronouns her and him to broaden the scope of the song. He did the same thing in "Some Enchanted Evening," although the lyrics played second fiddle to Firth's tinkling counterpoint that sounded like a music box. When Stokes sang his confident, commanding, booming version of "Stars," anyone who cringed at Russell Crowe's less than stellar attempt in the Les Mis film had to be thinking that this was a master class that Crowe should have attended.
It is difficult to quantify how much Firth's style and artistry contributed to the overall enjoyment, but it can't be overstated. At one point, with Stokes sitting off to the side on a stool unlit, Firth appeared to be playing a solo, but it turned out to be a beautiful, camouflaged introduction to "What Kind of Fool Am I?" The spotlight slowly came up on Stokes and he gave the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley tune a poignant delivery before ceding the focus back to Firth.
The audience never wants Stokes to conclude his concert, but I don't think he'd be allowed to leave without singing the anthemic "The Impossible Dream." Reverting to his Don Quixote characterization, he spoke the old man's lead-in lines, giving greater power to his moving rendition of this very moving song. Even when he unexpectedly performed a double encore, "The Impossible Dream" was still the best moment of a night filled with many wonderful moments.