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Stokes in Kiss Me Kate photo from Time
Time Magazine

From Coalhouse
to Cole Porter

By Richard Zoglin

Ragtime made him a star. Now Brian Stokes Mitchell triumphs anew in Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate

Even when he was a regular on the TV series Trapper John, M.D., Brian Stokes Mitchell (just Brian Mitchell then, before he added his middle name for more distinctiveness on the marquee) was a Broadway performer at heart. A film editor on the show once said he knew Mitchell must be a theater vet because he acted even when the camera wasn’t on him: “You don’t turn off when it’s not your line.”

It was good training for his starring role in the new Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate. Playing the head of an acting troupe performing The Taming of the Shrew, Mitchell is the undisputed star of both the show and the show within a show. Yet he has to cede most of the best Cole Porter numbers (Why Can’t You Behave?, Too Darn Hot) to others and spends most of his time playing mock Shakespeare and bickering with his ex-wife and co-star, deliciously played by Marin Mazzie. That’s one reason Mitchell never much liked the musical. “I thought the show had no heart,” he says.

Yet Mitchell has found the heart—and the laughs and the sexiness too—in a knockout follow-up to his career-making role two seasons ago as Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime. His crystal-clear baritone brings out all the graceful intricacy of Porter’s lyrics, and he moves from Shakespearean verse to comic pratfalls with ease. It would be demeaning to point out that Mitchell has the best posture on Broadway, but there’s something about that lean, ramrod-straight bearing that manages to both poke fun at itself and radiate real stage charisma. This new Kiss Me, Kate, (Broadway’s first since the l948 original), smashingly directed by Michael Blakemore and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, proves what Ragtime should have: Mitchell is Broadway’s first great musical star of the new millennium.

Born in Seattle, he spent his early childhood at U.S. military bases overseas, where his father was a Navy engineer. When the family settled in San Diego, he started acting in junior high—the first scene he ever played was from (what else?) The Taming of the Shrew. His mix-and-match racial background (African America, German, Scottish, American Indian and maybe a couple of others) didn’t stop him from getting roles. “I can kind of play everything because I am everything,” he says. He landed a part in TV’s Roots: The Next Generation when he was just 20 and spent seven years on Trapper John before shifting his concentration to the stage, co-starring in the short-lived Broadway musical Mail in 1988 and later in Oh, Kay!, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Jelly’s Last Jam.

Married to stage actress Allyson Tucker, Mitchell, 42, is working on his first solo album (which he’s producing and marketing himself) and thanking the fates for treating him so well. “So many things in my life, I look at them and see a pattern,” he says. “I was born on Halloween—a day when people put on costumes and pretend to be other people. What a perfect day for an actor to be born!” And Kiss Me, Kate is a perfect way for us to celebrate. 

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