Musical Theater: Brian Stokes Mitchell

One admires not just the quality of Brian Stokes Mitchell’s voice, but his artistry in getting to the emotional heart of whatever he is singing. He has long been a national treasure.

Michael : A National Treasure

Brian Stokes Mitchell: A National Treasure

Reviewed By Caldwell Titcomb

The Celebrity Series concluded its 2009-10 season with one of its finest offerings: a solo concert by Brian Stokes Mitchell at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, MA on May 8. He has had straight roles in plays—notably his Tony-nominated work in August Wilson’s King Hedley II—but is best known as a baritone in musicals, which have provided him an illustrious career since 1988.

On Saturday he held a large audience in thrall for an intermissionless hour and three quarters, assisted by facile pianist Tedd Firth. Now 52, Mitchell has a glorious voice, and he offered a program of works both familiar and little known.

At the start of the year, he tore his Achilles tendon and had to cancel some engagements as he hobbled about on crutches. What hurt the most? “My armpits,” he said. But he seemed to have recovered nicely and took advantage of sitting on a stool only a couple of times.

He gave us an enchanted evening by starting off with “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific, which has never sounded better. He proceeded to “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, a stage role that in 2000 brought him both a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award. He sang “Stars” from Les Misérables and “Dulcinea” from Man of La Mancha.

Having sung in Sanders Theatre before, he made a point of proclaiming that, of all the dozens of venues he’s sung in, this is one of the five best acoustically (Carnegie Hall is another). He proved it by putting his microphone aside for a gorgeous rendition of “This Was Nearly Mine” from South Pacific.

He wandered off the beaten path to perform “Aguas de Marco” (“Waters of March”), which was voted “the best Brazilian song of all time.” For this he briefly blew into a sort of keyboard harmonica, a small melodeon.

Mitchell stated that, over the decades, he has sung all the roles he’s yearned to do except one. This is “Carousel,” and he went on to sing Billy Bigelow’s long “Soliloquy” that ends the first act.

He chose to end his formal program with an unaccompanied and moving performance of “America the Beautiful,” with the piano and sneaked in “Wheels of a Dream” from Ragtime, which Mitchell (as Coalhouse Walker) sang as a duet with Audra McDonald in the original Broadway production in 1998.

He favored us with two encores: “Some Other Time” from Bernstein’s On the Town, and—his signature number—“The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha, whose 2002 revival brought him another Tony nomination.

One admires not just the quality of Mitchell’s voice, but his artistry in getting to the emotional heart of whatever he is singing. He has long been a national treasure.

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