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He’s Stoked for Stardom

By LARRY WORTH

HIS dressing room at the brand-new Ford Center for the Performing Arts is in a state of flux: Pictures aren't hung yet, shelves must be built and the new couch hasn't arrived.

But things are about to fall into place for Brian Stokes Mitchell, one of the stars of "Ragtime." First, the musical version of E.L. Doctorow's novel about turn-of-the-century America is the next big thing on Broadway (officially opening Sunday).

Better still, a star is about to be born from Mitchell's turn as early-1900s pianist-turned-revolutionary Coalhouse Walker Jr.

"Yeah, it's pretty exciting, and a little bit scary," Mitchell says of the nonstop praise, hype and expectations. "It's been incredible to have my heroes, heroines and lifelong inspirations coming backstage and saying the most flattering things to me.

"I'm just glad this is all happening a little later in my life."

At 39, Mitchell - who uses his middle name with friends and family - isn't exactly the new kid on the block. He first gained fame from co-starring for six years on TV's "Trapper John, M.D." as Dr. "Jackpot" Jackson.

Later he focused on Broadway, jumping from his debut in 1988's "Mail" to taking over for Tony Award-winner Gregory Hines in "Jelly's Last Jam." Next he replaced Tony-winner Anthony Crivello in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," playing opposite Chita Rivera, then Vanessa Williams and finally Maria Conchita Alonso.

Mitchell's performance in "Kiss" was what convinced producer Garth Drabinsky to offer him the dream role of Coalhouse. A soaring baritone voice, a dancer's grace and enough charisma to fill the Ford's giant stage were required, never mind good looks and an infectious smile.

Mitchell delivered on all of the above, whether honing the Coalhouse character in workshop form 2 years ago, then opening to raves in Toronto in the fall of '96 and earning more kudos in the L.A. production last June. Standing ovations have continued during Broadway previews.

A superstar's ego pretty much goes with the territory. But Mitchell is as friendly and unpretentious as they come, telling admittedly circuitous anecdotes about everything from his growing up days on Guam and in the Philippines (his dad was a civil engineer in the Navy) to his love for his 16-year-old pooch, Max (who shares his dressing room).

"Max is a mutt, like me," says Mitchell, noting that his mixed heritage (African-American, German, Scottish, native American) has let him play Hispanic and white characters as well as black men like Coalhouse.

Mitchell says he's particularly proud of letters he's received in the last year from teens, stating how Coalhouse's bouts with prejudice have made them rethink the meaning of racism.

"If I'd got just one letter like that, this whole thing would be worth it," he says. "But it's been one after another. And they blow me away.

"It's so important for people to understand what racism is. We're all racists, with prejudices against overweight people, ugly people, stupid people, people with disabilities. It's such a complex issue."

Catching himself in mid-sentence, Mitchell stops and shakes his head. "Boy, I can go on, can't I?"

As if on cue, Max pads over to Mitchell and helps change the subject, begging for a bacon treat that's handed over after a healthy bark. "He's like our kid," says Mitchell, noting that the other half of the parental unit isn't far away.

Allyson Tucker, Mitchell's wife, is part of the massive ensemble cast of "Ragtime." The couple, who met as co-stars of the short-lived Broadway musical "Oh, Kay!" in 1990, have been married three years.

Family remains very important to Mitchell, manifesting itself in his sentimental habits. That's why - even in Coalhouse's costume - he wears the pocket watch Tucker recently gave him, as well as his great-grandmother's locket watch (which she purchased after coming through Ellis Island from Germany).

If it's a little hard for Mitchell to tell such stories, it's because he still treasures his privacy. But in exchange for becoming a public figure, lots of new doors are opening.

He's currently finishing work on his first solo album, has completed vocals for this year's animated feature "The Prince of Egypt" and has had numerous queries from film studios and network heads about his post-"Ragtime" future.

"That's a year off for me, so I'm not thinking about that right now," he says. "For that matter, I'm taking nothing for granted. But it seems - and I hardly dare say it - things are boding well for me."

In addition to his other talents, Broadway's newest superstar is a master of understatement.

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