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Monday, Feb. 14, 2005

That Old Feeling: Stoked!

Richard Corliss on Brian Stokes Mitchell, Broadway’s charismatic almost-star
By RICHARD CORLISS

What’s the first noticeable difference between performers of bygone days — say, up to the 1960s — and modern ones? It’s that the classic show people almost always smiled while they worked, and the newer ones almost never do. Entertainers used to sell happiness. The idea was to please the audience and to hope that, if you smiled, they’d smile back. They’d paste a big grin on their face as they spoke, sang, executed amazing tap figures. No matter how demanding or exhausting the turn, their smile would tell you: See, it’s easy. It’s not work, it’s fun. No sweat, folks.

Nowadays you don’t see those smiles, except on fast-food clerks. On singers, the look of anguish predominates. Everyone’s a suffering artist, sad and surly. I’m going through hell, people, and taking you with me. To show pleasure during a performance is to seem shallow, unaware of how miserable the world is. Happiness is just a thing called Old. Forget you’re happy, come on, get troubled.

Misery is appropriate, if you’re in Darfar or Bangladesh, or on the overnight cleaning shift at Wal-Mart with all the doors locked. But if you’re singing in a rock group — if you’re young and rich and famous and the crowd is screaming love at you, and if your overnight shift is taking the favors of some beautiful stranger waiting at the stage door — honestly, what do you have to mope about? The Beatles, in the first flush of their fame (when they wore matching suits), got it right. They played a song, the girls squealed, the boys smiled. Then the Rolling Stones came along and made sexual menace the new code of behavior. With Bob Dylan, nobody was a singer any more; now they were artists. And to create, artists have to feel the pain. They’d have cut off their ears if they didn’t need them to hear the downbeat.

Brian Stokes Mitchell hasn’t got this message. The Broadway leading man is making his cabaret debut at Feinstein’s at the Regency (a night club in one of Manhattan’s swanker hotels), and, the poor sap, he wants to please us. His show, a three-week tribute to Valentine's Day emotions, is called “Love / Life” — which, unless you take the / as a slash (“Love Slashes Life”), couldn’t be sunnier. His advice is to “Live and laugh and dream.” His mission, he tells the audience, is to send us out “feeling a little bit better than when you came in.” He confesses, or avers, that “The sound of applause is delicious.” (He turns that last word into a brief, chirpy song of its own.) Stokes, as he likes to be called, exudes old-fashioned Broadway vitality, charisma and optimism. What is this, 1946 or something?

It is, when Stokes lights up the stage. And ain’t that grand?

MAKE SOMEONE HAPPY

In his stage roles, Mitchell hasn’t always played men with much to be happy about. Coalhouse Walker, Jr., the Ragtime character that made his Broadway name in 1998 must pursue his racial grievance into obsession and tragedy. Don Quixote, in a Man of La Mancha revival two years ago, is the addled victim of scorn and abuse. Paul the puppeteer, in the City Center Encores! 2002 concert version of Carnival, is crippled, and expresses his sensitivity in bitterness. The barber Sweeney Todd, whom Mitchell played the same year for a Stephen Sondheim season in Washington, D.C., kills his customers and sells their ground-up bodies as meat pies. As the put-upon petty criminal (a non-singing role) in August Wilson’s King Hedley II, Mitchell plays a troubled man heading for tragedy. Even his roguish, blustery hero in Kiss Me, Kate (Tony Award for Best Actors in a Musical) is a sardonic sort, toying with the temper of his favorite shrew.

It’s not the range of these roles that has created the Cult of Stokes — that sends his own clutch of fans to the stage door after each show — so much as the power he invests in them. He has a stately bearing, the emotional grandeur associated with Barrymore and Olivier, and a baritone voice of passion, precision and thrust. The musical theater can boast of a few, a very few leading men with the gift of delight: I’d want Kevin Kline on Broadway each year, and Martin Short in any musical comedy. (Short could play both main roles in The Producers, perhaps simultaneously.) But no one exudes the musk and majesty, the showbiz sulphur, of BSM. The New York Times called him Broadway’s “last leading man”; but that doesn’t touch his regal stage presence. He’s more like the one true king.

Yet, as you watch Mitchell at Feinstein’s, in a gig that continues through Feb. 19, you see a friendly face that automatically smiles. His mouth, his eyes ... even his curly hair seems happy. You guess that, offstage, in a living room or a mall or asleep, his face would radiate a purring contentment. I haven’t met the man, but I know a few people who know him, and they say, unbidden, that he is The Nicest Guy in the World. And when my in-house theater maven, Mary Corliss, chatted with him a while back, she said he was as gracious in person as he is imposing on stage. So his performance at the Regency isn’t method acting, apparently. It’s just an unfurling of his natural charm.

THE SET

The house lights dim on the smartly-dressed, sixtyish crowd and he enters, maneuvering in the narrow space between the small dinner tables with the running-back grace of a Gale Sayers. He’s as tall as you’d expect (6ft.1) but much slimmer, in a dark, pin-striped suit, pink shirt, rose-colored tie. He announces his list of cabaret don’ts and dos: “1. Don’t suck. 2. Do it as if you were entertaining in your living room.” Stokes’ sucklessness ia a given; and the only format here is informality. It’s as if we’re in the shank of a swank dinner party, and one of the guests is persuaded to sing, and he sings for an hour, and can he sing! If this deprives the show of a certain amount of moment, and momentum, it accentuates the feeling of good vibes, which Mitchell has chosen as the evening’s personality.

He begins with “It’s All Right With Me,” from Can-Can. This is one of Cole Porter’s pick-up songs, a chance-encounter tune suitable for either sex. “It’s the wrong time and the wrong place. / Though your face is charming, it’s the wrong face. / It’s not her face, but such a charming face / That it’s all right with me.” The song is a declaration of promiscuity, and as Mitchell sings he glances around the room, being serially flirtatious: making laser eye contact, leaving a lady in a puddle of love and moving on for the next conquest. For the instrumental break soars into a scat-singing riff; fake-exhausted after the flourish, he pants in 4/4 time. Big laugh from the audience, or rather, audible smiles. Before the first number is over, they’re in BSM’s mood. Now everyone in the room is at his stage door.

His next two numbers, “Make Someone Happy” (of course: it’s Mitchell’s mission) and “The Best Is Yet to Come” extend the mood of love in bloom and promises to be kept. Most of the songs he has chosen from the Great American Songbook are teasingly implicit. They suggest sex through love; the lyricists’ indirection kindled the listener’s illumination. Another Porter song, “Love for Sale,” is one of the few oldies that didn’t tiptoe around its subject but strolled right in. It’s meant to be sung by a woman, and is usually performed as a call-girl’s dirge. But Mitchell gives it a jazzy, larkish attack, as if he were the most irrepressible pimp on a midtown street finding new ways to sing, “Check it out!” Another sighting of the “happy” motif.

The evening isn’t all jollity. In “How Long Has This Been Going On,” you get a taste of Mitchell’s low-register power and sexiness, and, on the final note, the surprise of a perfect high note. Then he swings across the spectrum to do a jazzy tandem of My Fair Lady songs, as arranged by John (then Johnny) Williams for Shelly Manne’s big band. Mitchell gives a supple crooning cares — you’ll say it’s like Al Jarreau, I say Billy Eckstine — to “I’m an Ordinary Man.” With “Show Me” (another song written for a woman), he exchanges the fiery taunt of the original for a tone of encouraging adventure: I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours. In this two-song jazz festival, he swaps licks with the able, artful reed man Lawrence Feldman (sitting in, the night I was there, for Lou Marini). The other excellent sidemen are pianist-arrange Mike Renzi, bassist Bob Crenshaw and brushman Bruce Williams.

Two numbers Mitchell sings as a kid — Joe Raposo’s “Bein’ Green” and the Bruce Hornsby “Hooray for Tom” — going for innocence without getting cutesy. He graduates to fatherhood, tender and unsure, with Maury Yeston’s “New Words.” A medley of standards (“The Very Thought of You,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “Embraceable You” and “I’m Beginning to See the Light”) parades the Stokes range. A few times, when this baritone enters tenor territory, he gets a bit reedy on the high notes. But like the superb actor he is, Mitchell knows how to build to a climax. On several of the songs he ascends confidently to extravagant, beautiful final notes. It’s like the end of a wonderful voyage, with the Twentieth Century Limited gliding into the old Penn Station.

He says, “Time for the last song,” and the audience choruses a pouting awwwww. “Don’t worry,” he adds, “I have an encore planned.” Mitchell began the set with a song that anticipates casual, impromptu sex. He ends with a Bernstein-Comden-Green tune from On the Town: “Some Other Time”, a ballad of pre-coital, never-to-be-coital regret: “Haven’t had time to wake up / Seeing you there without your make-up. / Oh, well, we’ll catch up / Some other time.” In an hour, we’ve matured from anticipation to disappointment, from fling to flung.

TO DREAM

It’s a most expert, engaging hour. Still, in the aspects of his vocal work that Mitchell has chosen to display, there’s the sense of power withheld, of a lion determined to prove he’s a pussycat. That could be simply an actor’s canny assessment of the venue. His voice can expand to a heroic roar, filling and thrilling the 2,500-seat City Center. Here his chops are domesticated, as if he’s gauged the exact level of volume a 150-seat night club requires. Or, as my cafe society doyenne, Mary C., said, why blow the roof off a small room on the ground floor of a hotel? There are folks sleeping upstairs.

Then Mitchell returns for his inevitable encore, “The Impossible Dream,” which he sang twice a night for nine months in his La Mancha engagement. You know the song; it builds from a whisper to a righteously proclaimed shout, an orgasm of idealism. Cabaret connoisseurs, like The New York Observer’s Rex Reed, would have Mitchell skip his signature tune; to sing “The Impossible Dream” in such a jewel-box setting, Rex wrote, is “to throw bananas to the monkeys.” Okay. The song is corn, it’s schmaltz, and it never made me cry until I heard BSM sing it. Again, here, the rendition is thrilling. By the end he has dropped his mic; no amplification needed for that magnificent voice. Mitchell has unleashed the baritone beast. The lion will not sleep all night. And neither, for a few minutes, will the folks upstairs.

In truth, they may not know there’s a singer beneath them. And they probably don’t know who he is. Fewer than 3,000 people will see Mitchell in this three-week stint. One of the most potent singers in America has yet to release a solo album. And though at 46 he is an almost star on Broadway, he was seen by many more people 25 years ago, when he was plain Brian Mitchell (he added the Stokes, his mother’s maiden name, to distinguish himself from the other six Brian Mitchells on IMDb) and played Jackpot Jackson on Trapper John, M.D. He stayed with the show for its seven-year run, then free-lanced on TV, where his credits include Additional Voices for A Pup Named Scooby-Doo (1988), Captain Planet and the Planeteers (1990) and I Yabba-Dabba Do!& (1993). In a miniseries about tobacco heiress Doris Duke, he played surfer dude Duke Kahanamoku. He supported Angela Bassett in Ruby’s Bucket of Blood. He never had a movie role big enough for his character to have a name.

Stokes’ middling Hollywood career was a blessing, for he could leave it to reach the unreachable star. Now, he’s almost there. He’s played some of the best roles in the musical repertory. I’ve got a few more he could inhabit and ennoble: Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, Kean in Kean, Curly (or possibly Jed) in Oklahoma, the King in The King and I (though he’s vocally overqualified for a role that is mostly speak-song), Sid Sorokin in The Pajama Game, King Arthur in Camelot — virtually any musical male lead but the one in Hairspray.

I can think of something else that would make this someone happy. What is a gifted young composer were to write a great new role for this one true king?

I can dream too, can’t I?

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