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Last Star Stands: Don’t Miss Mitchell

by Rex Reed, New York Observer, 02/05

In a profession that has seen so many talented people shoot rapidly to stardom only to disappear as fast as a smoke ring, Brian Stokes Mitchell has managed to carve such an exalted niche for himself as a leading musical force in the theater that the wags have labeled him "Broadway’s last leading man."

That’s the kind of bio-blurb reach that keeps press agents in caviar, but this time there’s no doubt that the accolade has been earned honestly and with some degree of merit.

In stage musicals like Ragtime, Kiss Me Kate, Man of La Mancha and the recent "Encores!" revival of Carnival, the Tony-winning baritone has proved over and over again why prizes beckon every time he opens his mouth. O.K., we know all that.

But as impressed as I’ve been every time I’ve heard him let it rip on "The Impossible Dream" (and as much as I never want to hear him do it again), nothing he’s done onstage has ever prepared me for the beauty, tenderness, control, dramatic impact and overwhelming magnetism that is currently on display (through Feb. 19) in his debut cabaret act at Feinstein’s at the Regency. He is merely sensational.

Some people work diligently for years to build the kind of poise and self-control and to perfect the kind of musical showmanship that will make an audience sit up and nod with approval. Mr. Mitchell doesn’t do a thing; charisma and talent just flow naturally.

Handsome, warm, engaging and elegant, with mature flecks of gray air-kissing his temples, he cuts a fine figure the minute he sails onstage scatting a jazz chorus of Cole Porter’s "It’s All Right With Me" that wouldn’t have caused Mel Torme any sleepless nights in his prime, but which is every bit as kinetic and spirited as Al Jarreau.

The fact that the arrangement he wrote himself (he studied scoring and composition in college) is worlds removed from the way it has always been performed in Can-Can is the point of this whole exercise.

For here, at last, in an act called Love/Life, is Mr. Mitchell, defying the conventional skepticism that plagues Broadway stars who dare to shift away from home base to demonstrate rarely seen sides of their versatility and talent by investigating fresh new ways to sing standards.

For Mr. Mitchell, the transition is smooth as a piņa colada. Growing up, he confides, his first love was always jazz; he even named his son Ellington. Now, with a knockout quartet headed by ace pianist Mike Renzi, who also wrote about half of the rapturous arrangements, Mr. Mitchell has moved into the intimacy of a supper club, with an ebullient and inspired presence that is contagious, to share some of his favorite songs about love and life.

It is the richest and most thrilling nightclub act since Cy Coleman’s hugely praised show in the same room shortly before he prematurely passed on. There was talk at the time of Mr. Coleman recording his show "live" on the spot for posterity. That never happened. Now, if there is any sane record producer still alive (totally doubtful) with any taste, a "live" recording of Brian Stokes Mitchell in this triumphant venue would be an act of wisdom. Nothing this good should end here.

Intensely musical, Mr. Mitchell’s awesome baritone can glide effortlessly from feverish tempos into keen lyrical interpretations of romantic ballads with the freedom of improvisation he would never be allowed in the formalized and limiting confinement of a proscenium stage.

There is nothing dark about him. Even "Love for Sale" is an up-tempo romp. Joe Raposo’s "Bein’ Green" is as contemplative an essay on turning a disadvantage (being feared, misunderstood or just plain different) into as positive an affirmation of life as I have ever heard.

By using his acting skills to sing the subtext in the lyrics, he breaks your heart. Whoever heard of stopping the show with a ballad? And he does it again with "Hooray for Tom," a devastating song by Bruce Hornsby in which a little boy watches a schoolmate who has just won an honor on TV and wonders if a similar moment of admiration and applause will ever come his way.

Surprises abound. From Maury Yeston’s "New Words" (a father who was once a distracted son must now face the task of passing down some advice to his own child) to a My Fair Lady jazz medley written many years ago by famed film composer John (Star Wars) Williams when he was still the West Coast jazz pianist "Johnny" Williams, the pure beauty and warmth of Mr. Mitchell’s "cabaret voice" fuels the courage he needs to play all the parts, in all the voices, of all the ages.

Sometimes, when the screaming and the yelling die down from an audience that spends an unusual amount of time on its feet in a standing ovation, Mr. Mitchell just relaxes casually on a stool and sings lush, sensitive love songs that melt the room like hot scented candles. A tribute to the 40’s that includes "The Very Thought of You," "They Can’t Take That Away from Me" and "Embraceable You" weaves a magic spell that holds you transfixed. The arrangement and the phrasing on the Leonard Bernstein–Comden and Green evergreen "Some Other Time" is so exquisite that it ends the show with both tears and bravos. The encore, of course, is "The Impossible Dream." Mr. Mitchell has not forgotten how to throw bananas to the monkeys. But he still sings this war-horse with all the passion it deserves. And how clever to save the conventional for the goodbye wave.

From concept to showcase, this act soars above most of the starchy pabulum that passes for cabaret today. Young wannabe singers who think they already know how to charm an audience—but haven’t a clue about how to really do it properly—should be arriving by the busload. With fun and finesse and unforgettable artistry, Brian Stokes Mitchell is teaching a master class in greatness at the Regency.

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