BWW Review: Brian Stokes Mitchell Plays With Music in a Captivating Night of Hope and Joy
Brian Stokes Mitchell is a man of many talents. He's a stage and film veteran with the most glorious baritone voice. I first heard that signature voice when he made his Broadway debut in 1999 for the very premiere production of RAGTIME. I still can't believe that the Tony Award-winning musical is about to have its 25th anniversary, which Mitchell mentioned when he performed its rousing finale in his recent solo run at Feinstein's/54 Below.
Mitchell has graced the sublevel stage so many times in musical revues, tribute, and concerts that I didn't realize that he had never done a solo show before. Well, it's about time! The gifted actor took the stage at the venue on his own for the first time this month with a concert of songs, mainly from his forthcoming album PLAYING WITH MUSIC.
As Mitchell explained, he just wanted a joyous evening of music, in the midst of all of the trauma going on in the world, which blasts us every day in the media. There is "nothing deep about the show," he reassured us, yet Mitchell manages to explore everything that "should" deeply matter in our world--- a message of hope, sung with grace, beauty, resonance, and style.
The collection of songs was everything you needed in a 70-minute musical journey of hope, play, and joy. Mitchell may have been making his debut as a lone cabaret performer, but the musical theatre stage is certainly a place he can call home. He won the 2000 Tony, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama Desk awards for his performance as Fred Graham/Petruchio in KISS ME KATE. His other Broadway leads range from JELLY'S LAST JAM to striking dramatic leads like KING HEDLEY II.
With all of this in mind, it was quite appropriate that he started the show with the razzle-dazzle theatre anthem, "There's No Business Like Show Business" from ANNIE GET YOUR GUN. Mitchell molded his introductory song into a captivating journey. The orchestrations are ingeniously playful, created by musical director Tedd Firth, playing piano and leading an entire band onstage, complete with two violins, a viola, drums, a synthesizer, and wind instruments packing the small stage. They all played joyously throughout, to jazzy, toe-tapping renditions of great songs ranging from "Getting Married Today" from COMPANY to the poignant, "Hello Young Lovers" from THE KING AND I. Each song was made into a medley of musical genres which constantly surprised the captivated audience.
Mitchell was certainly playing with music throughout the night, with his surprisingly wonderful and quick-witted sense of humor. He ended his first song with a brief, "Thank you," and quickly transitioned into a patter song, "Gesticulate," as he bounces up and down with great animation and a mischievous gleam in his eye. Every song was sung with great theatrics and effortlessness. He was a pure joy to watch, and listen to, as he directly addressed the audience with playful, uncanny banter that thrived as the night progressed.
"When's the last time you came to a supper club, and the food was actually good?" he joked, as he started to explain the theme of the night. "The essence of what artists do is play. Are you ready to play along?" We certainly were.
His ballad "By Myself" is somber, yet still playful, as he sways in a blue light. As the night progressed, he engaged in more outrageously fun back-and-forth with the audience, joking, "Aren't you sorry you sat in the front?" He serenaded the audience with the beautiful ballad, "If Ever I Would Leave You" from CAMELOT, and, after wooing an audience member in the first row, quickly remarked, "Okay, I am going to leave you now" between verses.
With all the laughs, the first-class entertaining night was also equally poignant. He introduced a song that he sang for BROADWAY BACKWARDS, a tribute night were actors sing songs in reverse gender roles. Mitchell sang, "The Man I Love," but, in his words, "now that marriage equality is a thing," maybe the song was not so "backwards" after all.
With each song, Mitchell exercises perfect vocal control, improvising on a melodica (who knew he could play a melodica?), and sharing personal stories in honor of Father's Day. Each song got better and better as his musical arrangements grew more complex. "People often ask where I get different ideas for my arrangements", he reflected. "Where do I get ideas? The radio in my head that plays constantly, no matter what." This is a great lead-into the haunting Michel Legrand song, "The Windmills of Your Mind," a song which takes any audience on a journey through a magical gateway of music.
Mitchell is perfectly in sync with the entire orchestra, and which makes an incredibly memorable night of "play." The audience laughed, applauded, and left in even better spirits than when they had entered, who surely all looked forward to hearing the Broadway legend sing. The jam-packed night ended with a rousing anthem from RAGTIME, "Wheels of a Dream," as a final reminder that hope is always possible, and, most importantly, it is never too late to play.
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD specialist, artist, author, health advocate, award-winning actress, and playwright. She is currently touring her one-woman musical, GUTLESS AND GRATEFUL, across the country. Her work can be found at amyoes.com.