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Sunday, June 29, 1997, LA Times

From Coalhouse to Hot Stuff

Brian Stokes Mitchell just can't stop smiling since 'Ragtime' transformed him from an actor into a star.


He's in dressing room No. 1 backstage at the Shubert Theatre, as befits the star of a $10-million musical, but if you hadn't seen the show, you might wonder what he was doing there. In a city of stars, Brian Stokes Mitchell is as yet a new kid in town. His operatic performance as the tragic hero Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the recently opened, Broadway-bound "Ragtime" has theatergoers wondering at intermission, "Who is that guy?"

On closer inspection, it turns out he is neither a kid nor new to town, but the public has never had a chance to see or hear him in a role like this--the sort of role in the sort of show that changes everything for an actor.

"It feels like the Eagle has landed, and I'm about to step off onto the surface of the moon," Mitchell says one evening, two hours before the curtain is about to go up again on his new life. He is in an expansive mood, unembarrassed to share this heady moment with a visitor. "It's blowing my mind," he says of all the attention.

Recalling the emotional blast that hit him when he returned to the stage for the curtain call on opening night just two weeks ago, he says, trying "not to sound too New Agey," that "I could literally feel this tremendous amount of energy pass right through my body. To have 2,000 people put their energy into you, I still can't process it."

He was up there onstage hugging E.L. Doctorow, the author of the novel on which the turn-of-the-century musical is based; Terrence McNally, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who adapted the book; Frank Galati, the Tony Award-winner who directed it; Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the composer and lyricist who wrote the songs for him to sing; and producer Garth Drabinsky, the man who made it all possible by offering him the prize role of Coalhouse in the first place. The gasps and hugs and tears continued while the celebrity-studded crowd stood and applauded, whistled and roared. It was quite a scene, even by opening-night standards.

"On a scale of 10, that was a 10," Mitchell says, "but every night it's usually 8 1/2. The show seems to be touching a chord with people."

It started in Toronto last fall and will continue in Los Angeles as long as the box office warrants. But Mitchell will be at the Shubert only until November, when he leaves to prepare for the Broadway opening of "Ragtime" in January with the Toronto company.

He's been to Broadway before, replacing Gregory Hines in "Jelly's Last Jam" and Anthony Crivello in "Kiss of the Spider Woman." This time someone will be waiting to replace him.

The prospect of it looming ahead as he sits here in this dressing room surrounded by congratulatory bouquets of flowers, his back to a mirror papered over with telegrams and cards, must seem several galaxies removed from "Trapper John, M.D." He spent seven years in L.A. on the CBS drama, playing a doctor named Jackpot Jackson from 1979-1986. "I bought a house with 'Trapper John,' " he says, as if summing up the full meaning of episodic television.

But getting the part of Doctorow's proud and indignant piano player--now elevated to a lyric baritone onstage--might not be viewed as Mitchell's big break so much as getting cast in that other Drabinsky show, "Kiss of the Spider Woman." Playing the imprisoned revolutionary Valentin (with Chita Rivera and then Vanessa Williams) was the job that positioned him to get this one.

"When I had been doing 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' for about a month or so, Garth came up to me and said, 'Got a show, want you to do a role in it, can't tell you what it is.' He did that a couple more times and finally said, "It's 'Ragtime,' Coalhouse Walker Jr. It's yours if you want it."

Still, the way Mitchell sees it, "There really hasn't been a big break. There's been a lot of little breaks. But I could trace this show back to the very first thing I did at San Diego Junior Theater when I was 14 years old. I could trace the lineage of how one role leads to another and because somebody saw you doing this thing they hired you for this thing. It's been my path. This is another stopover on the path, and a wonderful one."

He changed his name for it. Before Toronto, he had always gone by the name Brian Mitchell, which he had finally decided he didn't like as a stage name and was going to discard altogether. Instead, he simply resurrected his middle name, Stokes, his late mother's maiden name. Now he prefers people call him Stokes.

In the 1981 movie of "Ragtime," directed by Milos Forman, a young actor named Howard Rollins Jr. was plucked from obscurity to play Coalhouse, the fictional stride piano player-turned-revolutionary, and played him indelibly, winning an Oscar nomination in the process. Later plagued by drug problems, Rollins died last year at the age of 46 of complications from lymphoma. Eerily, he died on the day "Ragtime" the musical opened in Toronto. "Two hours before curtain," Mitchell says. Mitchell never met Rollins but says, "On opening night, I felt like he had passed the mantle of the character on to me."

There is not much similarity between their two performances, if only because the styles of the film and the musical are themselves so different. Mitchell says he deliberately waited to see the movie after accepting the role and rehearsing it because "I didn't want to be influenced by what he was doing, I didn't want to steal his characterization."

Forman's movie earned eight Oscar nominations (including one for its score by Randy Newman) but has taken its lumps in some of the publicity for the musical and been criticized for its choice of focusing on Coalhouse's story at the expense of the more panoramic scenario of immigrants in melting-pot America that Doctorow constructed in his 1975 novel. But while the musical does cover more ground, the saga of Coalhouse, his wife and baby son, ambushed by bigotry in the land of the free, remains at its center.

Possibly the musical's most affecting song, "Wheels of a Dream," a show-stopper that reminds us of Leonard Bernstein more than Scott Joplin, inscribes Coalhouse's hopes for a brighter American future for his infant son--a hope that runs counter to the events of the story, it might be added, especially when the song is reprised after his murder.

One doesn't look too hard for logic in the lyrics of musical theater, but has Mitchell ever felt there to be a contradiction or falseness in that moment of Coalhouse's exalted view of Henry Ford's America? He says that, to him, "the song is not a song in praise of the country. It's a song about hope, what we dream about and wish for. Some people might take it as a sweet ending, but I don't see it that way. You don't want to hit 'em with a big downer ending. Because we're not trying to say, 'Life sucks, doesn't it?' We're trying to say, 'Life sucks but it's beautiful too. There's still hope for us as Americans and as human beings.' "

Mitchell grew up in Guam and the Philippines, where his father worked as a civil engineer for the Navy. His father had been one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black pilots allowed to fly combat missions for the Army Air Corps in World War II. His great-grandmother on his father's side was German, which accounts for his light skin.

"My family's very, very mixed. I am, I guess, a kind of melting pot in a person."

His fair coloring has sometimes worked against him in auditioning for African American roles. "I stopped going out for commercials at all because they didn't know what to do with me. 'He looks black but kinda white, maybe Hispanic.' And they don't want somebody to think of that when they've got their 30 seconds and $6 million on the line. They're going for very specific markets. In a sense, that is a form of racism, and it is still practiced."

If he has ever been moved to anger about this, there is no anger in his voice now. There's too much to be happy about at the moment, including the fact that his wife, Allyson Tucker, is in the show with him, as a member of the ensemble. "Thankfully [skin color] didn't come into play on this project, or I wouldn't have gotten the role. The fact of the matter is, in 1907, Coalhouse would have been considered a black man, whether he was light-skinned, middle-skinned or dark-skinned. It wouldn't have mattered, and he would have had the same problems [of racial prejudice]."

When he was 14, Mitchell's family returned to the States, to San Diego. He went to high school there and landed his first professional job at the age of 16, appearing in "Godspell" at the Old Globe Theatre as one of Jesus' disciples. He did other musical theater roles in San Diego before coming to Los Angeles in 1976 at the age of 18 as a member of a small repertory company for which he was also the resident composer. He had been playing the piano since the age of 6 and wasn't sure whether he wanted to be a musician or an actor. "When I moved to Los Angeles, I thought, 'Whatever hits, I'll go that direction. If it's music, fine; if it's acting, fine.' "

He saw in Drama-logue a notice about auditions for the TV show "Roots: The Next Generation." He didn't have an agent, but sent a picture and brief resume anyway to the casting director. "Two weeks later, I got a call from someone who said, 'I'm looking for Brian Mitchell. This is Ruben Cannon, the casting director. I have a part you might be right for and I'd love you to come down and read it.' I ended up getting the role [a leading character in the first episode]. That was kind of my start."

The music got put aside, but he has always kept a recording studio in the places he has lived, with the idea of one day making an album.

"I always get sidetracked by an acting project. And one of my problems is finding what style to sing because this [his booming voice in 'Ragtime'] is just one style I can sing. People hear this and they think, 'Oh, he's got this big legit voice.' But I like to sing jazz and pop stuff. They're different sounds."

People who saw him 10 years ago at the Pasadena Playhouse in a supporting role in the musical "Mail," have been coming up to him lately and saying, "My God, your voice! What happened to your voice?" startled by its size and range. "But I tell them, this wasn't the right voice for the character in 'Mail.' That was a pop-contemporary sound."

So, let's see, if he was 18 when he came to L.A. the first time, then that makes him now . . . but wait, he'd rather not get into that.

"Can you say, 'Thirtysomething?' "

How about "late '30s?"

"That's fine. It's just that in Los Angeles you're dealing with people who are so image-conscious. They see that number and it means something to them. In New York, people don't care so much about it. They hire you because of what you can do and your experience, not your TvQ. But that's the way things are done out here because it's a fast-paced business."

This would suggest that his ultimate goal is beyond Broadway, then?

"I love doing theater. It's what I grew up in and is my roots. I get a huge fulfillment from it. But if my path is to go someplace else, hey, I'm there. I don't know what's up ahead. If it stays on the stage, great. If it goes to films, great. I've always felt that my career was in wiser hands than mine. Whatever in its good time is supposed to happen will happen. I'm enjoying this right now."

* * *

* "Ragtime," Shubert Theatre, 2020 Avenue of the Stars, Century City. Today and next Sunday, 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Tuesday and Thursday, 8 p.m.; Wednesday and Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; dark Friday. Regular schedule: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Indefinitely. $35-$75. (800) 447-7400.

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