‘Beast’ Succumbs to the Baritone's Charms
by Rick Lyman, New York Times
NEW YORK -- “Call me Stokes,” he says, a deep, full-throated laugh coming right up from the basement.
Striding down Broadway near his Upper West Side apartment, Brian Stokes Mitchell trails a long, checkered scarf, his calf-length black coat rippling in the wind, his
alligator cowboy boots clicking on the pavement. Where does that baritone laugh come from? He's way too tall, too long-limbed to make such a tuba sound; more Jeff
Goldblum than Luciano Pavarotti, thin and graceful as a greyhound.
"I'm feeling very comfortable, very good," Mitchell says, his expressive fingers raking through the air. "I can't remember ever feeling more comfortable about a show."
Mitchell is undergoing the kind of career explosion that used to be a Broadway specialty, but seems to happen more rarely these days. He is an Overnight Sensation (after about 20 years of back-to-back jobs and ceaseless effort) as the standout performer in the new musical "Ragtime."
Though it is very much an ensemble effort -- true to the E.L. Doctorow novel that weaves several story lines into a bittersweet tapestry about social upheaval in early
20th century New York -- Mitchell and his character, Coalhouse Walker Jr., seem to command the stage.
The actor is aided by Coalhouse's acid-etched story, which provides the musical's heart-wrenching denouement, and by being allowed to sing (with Audra
McDonald) the real show-stopper, "Wheels of a Dream."
But the final, electric effect is Mitchell's own.
"He moves with an extraordinary grace," said Frank Galati, the show's director. "Yet he is very centered, able to be very focused and still. His voice is resonant and
warm in color and very rich, and when it lifts up into the atmosphere it has a brilliance and a steady burning intensity."
"Ragtime" opened on Jan. 18 to mixed reviews in the brand new Ford Center for the Performing Arts on 42nd Street, but nearly everyone singled out Mitchell's
performance. Even in a New York Times review that found much to criticize in the musical, Ben Brantley wrote that Mitchell "emerges as a sexy, charismatic star
who finds a sinuous dignity in the persecuted Coalhouse."
Mitchell, 39, slams back the last of his hot chocolate, bought at a small coffeehouse around the corner from his new apartment. He's been with "Ragtime" for more than
three years, from the first workshop up in Toronto (home base to Livent Inc., which is producing the show in the new Broadway theater it built) through performances there and in Los Angeles.
"But New York is a different kind of beast," Mitchell says. "It's just true: Audiences here are more sophisticated. You can feel, they have this attitude of 'been there,
done that.' You've got to win them."
Mitchell was born in Seattle, but was on the move by the time he was 5. His father was a civilian electronics engineer for the Navy and the family moved all over the
world. "It was a gypsy childhood that prepared me well for my adult life," Mitchell says. The family lived in San Diego for six months, on Guam for two years, in the
Philippines for six years, then back to San Diego, where he graduated from high school, caught the drama bug and went to work for a couple of local theater companies.
"I'd been playing the piano since I was 6 and wanted to be a composer," he said, "but I also wanted to be an actor. I decided to just pursue both and see which won out."
When he was 18, in 1977, he moved to Los Angeles and took a job with another theater company. "About six months after I got there, I saw this ad in a local
magazine about casting for 'Roots: The Next Generation,"' he says. "I didn't have an agent or anything, but I sent them a letter and some pictures, and about three
weeks later, the casting director called and asked me to come in," he said.
It resulted in a fairly sizable part -- one of the leads in the mini-series' first installment -- and gave him the final nudge over into acting.
Mitchell's light complexion (he calls himself predominantly black, with a German great-grandmother and a smattering of Scottish and American Indian) has sometimes made it difficult for casting directors to get a
handle on his ethnic background.
From 1979 to 1986 he played Dr. Jackpot Jackson, a recurring character in the television series "Trapper John, M.D." He used the money he earned from that series to
buy a house in Los Angeles and equip it with a recording studio, from which he started a second career, composing scores for industrial films and other projects.
He also began doing voice-over work for animated films.
Ten years ago, he made his Broadway debut in a musical called "Mail," which he joined in Southern California and then followed to New York. He played one of the lead
character's best friends. The musical didn't last long, he said, but he got some good notices and won one of that year's Theater World awards for newcomers to Broadway.
"I felt a little like it was New York saying, 'Come back, give it another try,"' he said. A couple of years later, he was hired by David Merrick to play one of the lead roles
in the revival of "Oh, Kay!" That show only lasted for a few months (it was on it, though, that he met Alysson Tucker, whom he married in 1994). When Merrick decided
to revive the show again, Mitchell passed. He was soon back on Broadway, though: replacing Gregory Hines in "Jelly's Last Jam" in 1993 and then Anthony Crivello in "Kiss of the Spider Woman."
On that second show, another Livent production, he came to the attention of Garth Drabinsky, the company's chairman.
"He was my first choice to play Coalhouse," Drabinsky said. "It was his charisma, his wonderful baritone voice. He won my favor early on, because he's also an
incredibly hard-working, prodigious individual who cares greatly, seldom misses performances. He's the type of person you can count on, and that in itself is a wonderful thing."
In the meantime, Mitchell did a voice-over role in "Prince of Egypt" (the first animated feature for the new Dreamworks movie studio that will be released later this
year), played a recurring character on "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," began work on a first solo album and started up his own Web site (www.brianstokes.com) that he's very proud of.
"I'm here in New York now for a year," he says. "After that, who knows? I'm starting to get offers, but I'm concentrating on this."
It was around the time he got the Coalhouse role that Mitchell -- who had been known professionally as just Brian Mitchell up to this point -- added his middle name
(which was his mother's maiden name) and became Brian Stokes Mitchell. He also began asking friends and family to call him "Stokes." It seemed, he says, as though
things were changing for him, that he was moving into a new, accelerated phase in his life.
At the final dress rehearsal for "Ragtime" -- the so-called gypsy rehearsal, when Broadway's working stiffs are invited -- Mitchell hushed the crowd at the end of the
closing ovation and gave a short speech.
"You know, it was mostly fellow artists in the house, and I was among the first people to sing at a new Broadway theater, it just felt like an obligation to say something,"
he says. "To me, a theater is a kind of a sacred space. It needs a kind of ceremony, like what happens when you consecrate a church. Basically, what I said was, 'God bless this house."'
His apartment -- where he and his wife, a member of the ensemble in "Ragtime," have been for only a few months -- is still a jumble of unpacked boxes and unhung
paintings. "I know I should get to work on it when I have a day off," he says, "But we don't have many days off."
He pops up to the apartment for a minute to get his old dog, Max, and take him for a walk.
"C'mon, Max Bones," he calls, and the fuzzy little mutt comes waddling through the lobby with a red kerchief around his neck. Mitchell and Max just spent their 17th
New Year together, and Max is moving a little slowly these days. Out on the pavement, Max makes his way down the slope toward the Hudson, sniffing distractedly at the trees and potted plants. People scurry by, some
neatly stepping around the dog, others pausing to smile or say hello.
"That's what I love about New York," Mitchell says. "So many people crowded together, pushing against one another."
He pauses for a moment. "And that's what I hate about New York," he says, "So many people crowded together, pushing against one another."
And then he laughs again, that deep and rumbling sound. It's like an express train just passed underneath on its way to Times Square.
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