BWW Review: BRIAN STOKES MITCHELL PLAYS WITH MUSIC (Splendidly) at Feinstein's / 54 Below
Musical Theatre Royalty. We've still got a few.
Oh sure, purists may lament the days gone by of megawatt Great White Way personalities like Merman and Martin, Alfred Drake and John Raitt. But we've still got Chita. We've got LuPone and Peters and Audra McDonald (still in her prime).
And when it comes to leading men, we've got Brian Stokes Mitchell.
The elegant and dapper classical baritone who first burst on Broadway over three decades ago with a booming voice and richly realized performances (from tragic to comic) in such diverse offerings as RAGTIME, MAN OF LA MANCHA and a Tony Award winning turn in KISS ME KATE, has proven time and again (and unequivocally) that he is perhaps Broadway's finest singing actor.
Now returning to Feinstein's / 54 Below for a two week engagement to celebrate the release of his new recording, Brian Stokes Music - Plays With Music, Stokes: warm, genuine, and with absolute joy reveals, in close and intimate quarters, just how essential and multi talented he is.
A consummate musician raised on the idiom of jazz, Stokes (accompanied by a fabulous trio, including Joseph Thalken on piano, Gary Haase on Bass and Clint DeGanon on drums) infuses Plays with Music with a refreshing pop-groove spin on such beloved standards as 'There's No Business Like Show Business" and "Hello Young Lovers," at the same time allowing the playful (and infinitely warm hearted) performer the chance to tackle, with detailed nuance, the moment to moment audience connection of a master storyteller.
From the playful infidelity of "If Ever I Would Leave You" (as delivered to an extremely willing group of female audience members) and the regal swoop of "Gesticulate" from KISMET, which Mitchell exudes with handsome and knightly presence, to "I'm Not Getting Married Today" (performed with breathless, rapid fire perfection) in Mitchell's hands, each song is a one act play of boundless vocal and emotional expression.
Tinging the evening, natch with a spattering of Christmas classics, Stokes' cabinet of characters extends to a deliciously nasty Grinch, and in one of the evening's most delightful spins, an original song penned by Mitchell, himself, detailing the Christmas list of the world's most precocious seven year old ("Christmas is All About Me").
Part of Stokes' enormous appeal is the unlikely pairing of his stalwart virility with emotional accessibility. To experience "The Man I Love" (with male gender pronouns retained) or John Bucchino's masterful paen, "Grateful" delivered with soaring vocals and heart swelling vulnerability is, in a way, to see an every man fantasy realized. Is it perhaps only possible in the musical theatre (or in a cabaret such as this) for man's psyche to ever be so beautifully balanced? If so, than Stokes is our ideal effigy.
An expert pianist and orchestrator, the focus and thematic tie for much of Stokes' tastes and musical selection seem to center on the idea of family. At Tuesday evening's premiere performance, the performer's wife, the actress Allyson Tucker and his teenage son, Ellington both were both in attendance and frequent cause for the continual twinkle in Stokes' eye.
Alternating between affection for them and for the sold out room (watching back in equal adoration), Stokes, with his heart on his sleeve and hand ever reaching for personal kinship, is altruistic and generous.
And with "A Wizard Every Day" (by emerging songwriters, Liz Suggs and Nikko Benson) and most especially, "New Words" written by Maury Yeston, Stokes, with alternating childlike exuberance and wonder, provides the evening with its greatest gifts.
Indeed, singing Yeston's lyrics:
Turn your eyes from the skies now
Turn around, and look at me
There's a light in my eyes now
And a word for what you see
We call it love, my son
we hit on Brian Stokes Mitchell's most singular skill. For when showmanship is this burnished with ardour and passion, what, in truth, could ever be more royal?
For tickets visit the Feinstein's / 54 Below Website