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BWW Review: Brian Stokes Mitchell's Café Carlyle Debut is a Treat for the Ear, Eye and Heart

What qualities define a leading man? Charisma, soul-searching masculinity, and a deep, lustrous voice--once upon a time, we had entertainers who possessed them all. With his Cafe Carlyle debut show that opened last night, Plays With Music--following his Tony-Award winning Broadway performances, 12 years on the road in concert, a couple of recent, all too brief New York theatrical turns, and television work--Brian Stokes Mitchell proves that a few such leading men stil exist. Next, it'll be unicorns.

From the moment Stokes Mitchell takes the stage with one of the most interesting renditions of Irving Berlin's iconic "There's No Business Like Show Business" I ever heard, we know we're in the presence. Musical Director/Pianist Tedd Firth's three-part arrangement builds from short, vamp-like phrases to legato melody to jazz as the persuasive vocalist leans out, bouncing a little, infectiously enjoying himself.

Unlike many theater professionals who take the cabaret stage only to perform over our heads, Stokes Mitchell sings TO his audience, looking in faces, even reacting to expressions. Patter is warm and genuine. An actor to his toes, he gives every number identity making context implicit. Some songs seem like one-acts. Possessed of big, resonant, open-throated capability, the artist unleashes this only occasionally (to better effect), instead choosing the emotional translucence of well-calibrated hush.

Songs like the droll "Gesticulate" (Alexander Borodin/Robert Wright/George Forrest from Kismet) and Stephen Sondheim's "Getting Married Today" (from Company) in which he plays the basso, walrus-faced priest; Paul, the enthusiastic groom; and deer-in-headlights bride, Amy (twittery and feminine), are comic delights.

A third number showcasing these particular skills is the contemporary "A Wizard Everyday" (Liz Suggs/Nikko Benson) in which a little boy with Halloween bravado reminds the singer all things are possible with belief. Stokes Mitchell's child is enchanting. Wait until you hear the magical incantation!

The tandem "By Myself" (Arthur Schwartz/Howard Deitz) and "I Won't Send Roses" (Jerry Herman from Mack and Mabel) begins with dark, syncopated vamp and hand-in-pocket insouciance. "No one knows better than I myself . . . " elicits a little, resigned shake of the head. The latter feathers into a bittersweet foxtrot; swelling as if to send Mabel running for her own good. We get a taste of Mack's anger at his own withholding.

When several years ago Stokes Mitchell participated in Broadway Backwards--men given songs associated with female characters and vice versa--he performed "The Man I Love" (George and Ira Gershwin.) Its lyric takes on new colors these days, he comments, now that "people can marry whom they want" (in some places). The transfixing number starts quiet, hopeful, sweet and naïve. Years drop away. "Someday, he'll come along . . . (up on his heels), "Maybe I shall meet him Sunday/Maybe Monday, (arms welcome) maybe not . . . (shrug)"

By the time the song is over, what was a romantic vision becomes an effort to convince himself; a plea to the heavens. Even with heady vocal build, the artist never goes over the top. Eleven o'clock numbers are mercifully reserved for 11 o'clock.

The familiar "Windmills of Your Mind" (Alan Bergman/Marilyn Bergman/Michael Legrand) is beautifully reimagined (in an arrangement by Stokes Mitchell), as it took form on the "radio in my head," an ongoing soundtrack experienced by many musicians. Paired with Bach's "Prelude in C Minor," we hear distant church bells, intoning chords, then accomplished piano clarity behind the burnished pop song. There's an exciting, sped-up, percussive denouement before the number ends with a hum.

For "The Water is Wide," a traditional Scottish spiritual, Stokes Mitchell plays a simple, reed flute. Drums rumble, cymbals rustle, sticks hit wood. The song sounds pagan. In several other numbers, he wields a melodica, often with deft, jazz feeling, adding dimensionality and texture. (With a short keyboard on top, the instrument is played by blowing air through a mouthpiece that fits into a hole in the side.)

There are, of course, unabashedly romantic selections. Sir Lancelot's elegant, perceptively severe "If Ever I Would Leave You" (Frederick Lowe/Alan Jay Lerner) is prefaced by French; "Hello Young Lovers" (Oscar Hammerstein III/Richard Rodgers from The King and I) arrives airbrushed with slightly quivering vibrato adding palpable conviction. Glissando piano is lush.

The show business anthem "I Was Here" (Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty from The Glorious Ones) acts as aria da capo. Here's the quintessential matinee hero--dashing, commanding, full of himself, irresistible. It's a gorgeous song, as poignant as it is brash; its sentiments close to the heart of every performer. The artist shares his passion. This artist shares.

Arrangements are original; musicianship superior. In addition to Tedd Firth, Stokes Mitchell has Gary Haase on Bass and Mark Mclean on percussion.

Brian Stokes Mitchell's show, Plays With Music, at the Café Carlyle through September 26, 2015

Photos by Michael Wilhoite

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From This Author Alix Cohen