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November 24, 2002

Broadway’s
Last Leading Man?

By BRUCE WEBER

It is no exaggeration to say that Brian Stokes Mitchell is right now in a class by himself as a Broadway leading man. No other actor can match his singing voice. No other singer can claim his acting range or experience. No other man — at least, no one who works in the theater regularly — can say, “I want to play Don Quixote in ‘Man of La Mancha’ “ and bring it about. Mr. Mitchell has reached a rare perch in the American theater: he can make his dreams come true with other people’s money.

“The words matinee idol come to mind,” said Margo Lion, a producer of the 1992 “Jelly’s Last Jam,” who hired Mr. Mitchell as a replacement for Gregory Hines. “He’s holding the banner of the classic male heterosexual lead.”

Mr. Mitchell, 45, has appeared in six Broadway musicals overall. “Mail,” “Oh, Kay!,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Ragtime” and “Kiss Me, Kate,” for which he won a Tony Award, were the others. Last summer, in Washington, he played the title role in “Sweeney Todd” at the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration. And two seasons ago, he exercised his dramatic chops in August Wilson’s “King Hedley II.” On difficult and unfamiliar ground, it wasn’t his finest hour, but he did earn a Tony nomination.

Yes, there are other well-known musical stars: Michael Crawford, the erstwhile Phantom of the Opera, for example, who has an ardent following and is about to open in the delayed musical extravaganza “Dance of the Vampires.” But, like Mandy Patinkin, Mr. Crawford doesn’t come around too much. There are other actors who cross over between musicals and straight plays, notably Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. But neither of them works as consistently onstage as Mr. Mitchell does, and their gifts are largely comedic.

Indeed, ask experienced theater folks which performers might compare to Mr. Mitchell, and the names that surface are from decades past, including Richard Kiley during the 1960’s and others from even further back than that.

“It’s gone out of style to have that kind of presence,” said Roger Berlind, the producer of “Kiss Me, Kate.” “He’s someone who can sing, look great, hold the stage and be the center of attention. In that sense, Stokes is a throwback.”

Partly this is because it has been a long time since the theater was the leading American performance medium, and movies and television have increasingly sapped talent from the stage. But among the other reasons that Mr. Mitchell, a television star before he came to New York from the West Coast, is considered the prince of Broadway is that Broadway is where he wants to be. “I love the theater, and I just don’t love television like that,” Mr. Mitchell said, during one of several interviews this fall.

“Maybe it’s by default, but at the moment there really isn’t anyone like him,” said the Broadway historian and critic Ken Mandelbaum. “So few people are committed to the theater now. Alfred Drake and John Raitt in the 50’s — they’re probably the closest thing. Kiley, when he did ‘La Mancha,’ following ‘Redhead’ and ‘No Strings.’ John Cullum, who’s with us now again, of course, in ‘Urinetown.’ Kevin Kline could have been a guy like that after he did ‘On the Twentieth Century’ and ‘The Pirates of Penzance,’ but he’s never done another musical.”

That Richard Kiley’s name crops up so often is especially significant because Mr. Mitchell is about to reprise Kiley’s most famous role, arguably the most popular musical character of the last half century. He is, of course, Don Quixote, Cervantes’s loopily courageous knight errant and the title character of “Man of La Mancha.” With a book by Dale Wasserman (who adapted his own television adaptation of Cervantes, “I, Don Quixote”), music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, the show ran for nearly six years after it opened in 1965 and, among other things, it fixed Kiley — who died three years ago at 76 — indelibly in theater history, not least for his association with the show’s signature anthem, “The Impossible Dream.”

The revival, directed by Jonathan Kent, opens on Dec. 5 at the Martin Beck Theater, a production that looms as an interesting test of Mr. Mitchell’s stature.

“I don’t know if he’s a ticket-selling star at this point,” said Mr. Berlind. “There aren’t many, and usually they come from the movies. But Stokes has as good a chance of being that as anyone in the business.”

In Washington, where the show had its out-of-town tryout, the reviews were largely positive, though some major critics were skeptical, citing a leaden, out-of-date book and, in one case, an unwieldy, grand-scale design. No one, however, had anything but encomiums for Mr. Mitchell. “His renditions of ‘I, Don Quixote,’ ‘Dulcinea’ and — what’s the obscure one? ‘That Impossible Dream’ thing? — are so affecting that you’d be happy if he chucked the helmet and breastplate, slipped into a turtleneck and crooned a couple dozen more,” wrote The Washington Post’s Peter Marks, who was otherwise evidently bored.

Of course, it’s possible that Broadway has become too homely a sister to Hollywood to generate its own matinee idols ever again. But in a show with the populist pedigree of “Man of La Mancha,” Mr. Mitchell — whom Mr. Kent calls “a master of the genre performing in his absolute prime” — could conceivably have found the vehicle to propel him to the kind of male celebrity that the theater is starved for.

“He’s the next Kiley,” said Mr. Leigh, the composer. “And we haven’t had a Kiley since Kiley.”

Mr. Mitchell, whom everyone calls Stokes, could have chosen television, which he cracked at the age of 21. He spent 1979 through 1986 as Jackpot Jackson, a young doctor on the CBS series “Trapper John, M.D.,” and as late as last season was a repeat guest star on “Frasier.”

Tall and lean, gregarious and almost impossibly friendly, he may be constitutionally unsuited to smug and aloof Hollywood-type stardom. He likes the idea, he said, that, “I can still ride the subway without people going bonkers.” There is something, well, quixotic about him.

Mr. Mitchell never went to college, having already begun performing professionally in high school. He calls himself an autodidact, though he had private teachers in both acting and voice around San Diego, when he lived there as a teenager.

He was born in Seattle and spent several childhood years overseas, in Guam and the Philippines, where his father worked as a civilian electronics engineer for the Navy, and where, he said, he conceived his interest in music. “When I was 6 years old, I asked my parents for an organ,” he said. “I don’t have any idea why I wanted an organ.”

He acknowledged that it is his singing voice that sets him apart from other performers. Pitch perfect, with a golden feel for the nuances of hummable melody, rich and round enough to have garnered him an offer to sing at the Metropolitan Opera (he turned it down in favor of a Broadway role), it is a gift that is almost uniquely suited to the American musical tradition.

MY style is just made for it,” he said. “I can’t deny that. I’m not a pop singer; I’m not a jazz singer. And I know I sing like not a whole lot of people do; I also know that a lot of other people act like I do. And better than I do. But what informs the singing is the acting. They’re not separate from each other.”

Even so, to hear him tell it, his career path was chosen for him. When his opportunities in Hollywood dried up, he said, he naturally gravitated toward those who wanted him.

“For a while, I couldn’t get arrested in television, because everybody thought of me as that guy on ‘Trapper John,’ “ he said. “So I thought, ‘Great, I’ll come out here to New York and do some theater, and when they get tired of me I’ll do something else.’ “

Which of course they never did, a circumstance he is now happily taking advantage of. “Theater gave me a chance to make a good living, and now I can pick and choose what I want to do,” he said. “What more can you ask for? It’s been given to me on a plate, and when life gives it to you on a plate, you eat. You know?”

That the new “Man of La Mancha” exists at all is very much a result of Mr. Mitchell’s desire to star in it. He had always loved the show, he said, because of its rejection of cynicism, its broad declaration that human beings are capable of infinite nobility and virtue, and he felt that the time was ripe to reprise those sentiments. In addition, the music thrilled him, he said, and it was smack dab in the center of his vocal range.

Two years ago, as his tenure in “Kiss Me, Kate” was winding down, Mr. Mitchell went to see Mr. Leigh. The composer, who has always held tightly to the reins of the show and never before given permission for a wholly rethought staging, had coincidentally been negotiating with a producer, Jon Platt, for the rights to a new production, and when Mr. Mitchell became attached, he yielded.

“I’ve produced a number of versions of it,” Mr. Leigh said, “but now I’m at a stage where I don’t want to do it again. The kid is going to be 37 years old and you got to let go. Producers always want to do it, and we’ve been turning them down because we’ve wanted the right guy, and when Stokes’s name came up, I thought, ‘You know, that’s a nice idea.’ And I met with him, and he was very respectful of the work and totally unprepossessed about his own importance. He didn’t insist on matinees off. There was no star baloney. And that was a pleasure, let me tell you.”

Mr. Platt, meanwhile, had been mostly a producer and presenter of road shows. So he enlisted a partner with experience on Broadway, David Stone, who is now more or less in charge.

“Stokes was the only reason I was interested,” Mr. Stone said.

With Mr. Mitchell’s approval, Mr. Stone hired Mr. Kent (“Medea” with Diana Rigg; “Hamlet” with Ralph Fiennes) to direct, even though Mr. Kent, who is completing his tenure as co-artistic director of the Almeida Theater in London, had never before directed a musical. He had, however, seen the Kiley original, and likened “Man of La Mancha,” in its own idiom, to a classic drama.

“I don’t think you sit down and say, ‘Let’s do “Medea,” now who should we get?’ “ said Mr. Kent. “Stokes can mold song and language to an emotional and narrative end in a way I’ve never heard anybody else do.”

Together, the three men are responsible for a rethinking of the traditionally minimalist staging of “Man of La Mancha”; the mammoth iron cage, designed by Paul Brown, that serves as the production’s set is likely to be a much-debated element of the show. And they are responsible as well for the casting of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Aldonza, the prostitute Don Quixote sees as a princess, and of Ernie Sabella as his sturdy sidekick, Sancho Panza.




Not everyone is convinced that a revival of “Man of La Mancha,” at a cost of $6 million, is a terribly good idea, no matter who is in it.

On the one hand, the reasoning goes, no matter how popular the franchise of the show may be, “Man of La Mancha” is, with the righteous and hopeful spirit that captured the ideals of the 1960’s, out of sync with the prevailing disenchantment of our time. When the show was in Washington last month, the threat of a sniper kept audiences tense and the house from being full.

On the other hand, no matter how gifted Mr. Mitchell is, he doesn’t have the Q-rating to lure years’ worth of tourist ticket buyers to a show whose familiarity may finally work against it.

“Man of La Mancha” has, of course, become a staple of the bus and truck tour, the dinner theater and the community playhouse, so no matter who the star is, people may feel they can see it near home. Besides, the show’s most recent Broadway revival, just 10 years ago, was listless and short-lived.

The phrase “to dream the impossible dream” has entered the lexicon of cliché. And the song itself, once a potent anthem throbbing with sincerity, is now in need of reclamation from decades of sap-dripping covers by the likes of Ed Ames and Jim Nabors. Even Mr. Kent conceded that “in some ways, it’s an easy musical to patronize.”

But like every perspective that Mr. Mitchell has on show business, his view of “Man of La Mancha” is unusual and maybe uniquely sunny. The show doesn’t patronize, nor should it be patronized, he said. He spoke with an impressive fervor reminiscent of, well, Don Quixote.

“We’ve gotten to this place where we’re filled with xenophobia and mistrust, and this is a show that reconnects people to a noncynical place,” he said. “It’s about joy, hope, virtue, nobility, words that have become corny, but are great qualities.

“There’s a line in it about the reason that Alonso Quijano becomes Don Quixote: the books he’s been reading have filled him with indignation at man’s inhumanity to man. And I thought, ‘That’s how I feel watching the news.’ As an artist I want to be like a Boy Scout and leave the place a little better than it was when I arrived, and this is a show that lets me do that.”   

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