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Stokes at Lincoln Center, photo by Joan Marcus, NYTimes
May 16, 2005
THEATER REVIEW | 'LOVE/LIFE'

A Tuneful Seven Ages of Man, From Gawky Boy to His Father

By STEPHEN HOLDEN, New York Times

When Brian Stokes Mitchell mobilizes his one-man vocal army to sing "The Impossible Dream" from the stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, his eyes narrow and roll up until you see only the whites. Assuming the determined stance of a rider who has been heading into the sunset since the beginning of time, his Don Quixote is the musical apotheosis of a blind seeker of truth, a hero, yes, but a scary one, unstoppable in his fanatical quest to "follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far."

The voice that rumbles out of him like thunder underlined by drumrolls is a fierce, commanding baritone; unleashed full force, it is explosive. If you thought "The Impossible Dream" was a piece of kitsch, Mr. Mitchell's thrilling interpretation will make you think again; that's the kind of integrity a great singer can confer on a song often corrupted into something squishy and false.

Until this anthem arrives at the very end of "Love/Life," Mr. Mitchell's 90-minute concert for the theater, the singer has held his detonating force partly under wraps and for very good reasons. The song may be his grand final gesture, but it has been equaled in dramatic insight and vocal prowess many times earlier in a program that might be subtitled "The Seven Ages of Man."

"Love/Life" originated as a cabaret show that Mr. Mitchell performed at Feinstein's at the Regency in February to unanimous acclaim. For its theatrical incarnation (it plays Sundays and Mondays on the off nights of "The Light in the Piazza," through May 23), it has been slightly expanded (to 20 songs) and its material reorganized. Three members of the original quartet - Lou Marini on reeds, Bob Cranshaw on bass and Buddy Williams on drums - remain; a percussionist (Warren Smith) has been added. Gerard D'Angelo has replaced Mike Renzi as musical director and pianist.

"The Impossible Dream," with its dark, driven sense of destiny, is something of an anomaly in a show that touches only briefly on Mr. Mitchell's Broadway musicals, like "Man of La Mancha" and "Kiss Me, Kate." For much of the evening, he forsakes leading-man heroics to explore a hybrid of traditional Broadway formality and swinging pop-jazz that has few precedents in modern music; the closest may be Lena Horne and Audra McDonald at their most adventuresome, with touches of Bobby McFerrin's playfulness and Sarah Vaughan's lushness.

"Love/Life" also expresses what Mr. Mitchell describes from the stage as his "natural bent in life to be happy." As he sings and reminisces, his voice and body appear galvanized by a kind of spiritual electricity. He is one of the few singers I've heard whose affirmations of joy don't smack of the kind of smug, morning-show cheeriness that makes you wince at the phony optimism masking anxiety and rage.

But the underlying musical thread of "Love/Life" is a dialogue between jazz and theater in which the singer anchors every song to a fully realized character while maintaining a measure of improvisatory freedom.

In the evening's most ominous moment, a tense, springy pop-jazz arrangement of Cole Porter's "Love for Sale," Mr. Mitchell becomes an avaricious flesh peddler, bending and twirling notes like Al Jarreau as he warily prowls the street, hawking his wares.

The riskiest segment of "Love/Life" finds Mr. Mitchell shedding his adult sophistication to metamorphose into a shy, gawky little boy. Insecure and eager to please, peering this way and that, he sings Joe Raposo's "Bein' Green" in a small, hopeful voice, before another child appears, one who has just lost a spelling bee, in Bruce Hornsby's "Hooray for Tom." At the end of this little trilogy, the boy becomes his empathic father reliving his childhood as he teaches the names of things to his young son in Maury Yeston's "New Words."

Mr. Mitchell may be chameleonic, but his vocal colors and personalities never feel dissociated; everything emanates from a powerful center in which, miraculously, the child inside feels free to express himself with an openness few singers have the courage to show.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Mr. Mitchell's crooning of four classic love songs - "How Long Has This Been Going On?" "Embraceable You," "The Very Thought of You" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" - in which the mature singer exults in romantic love with a childlike delight. In his silken, elegant phrases that linger over each ecstatic exclamation, Mr. Mitchell makes you believe that the happiness bursting out of him is as natural as breathing.

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