by Marilyn Lester
Broadway veteran, two-time Tony-winner and recent inductee into the Theater Hall of Fame, Brian Stokes Mitchell made his long-awaited Feinstein’s/54 Below solo debut with a tsunami-sized splash. Pulling out all the stops, Mitchell’s performance was a master-class on how to create, build and perform a flawless stage show. Possession of a winning personality, one of Mitchell’s chief assets, ranks high on this checklist for perfection. By all accounts, he’s a heck of a nice guy, a generous, warm, down-to-earth sort without airs and graces, which immediately radiates outward from the source. From the moment Mitchell sets foot on stage there’s no doubt you’ve become a BFF for whom he’ll personally guarantee an unforgettable, great time. You have the impression that at this moment there’s no other place that he would rather be than right here with you. Blessed with easy conversational skill, his narrative is intimate and natural, following closely his stated intention of performing as if he’s in his own living room hanging out with friends. He is, in the classic sense of the term, absolutely heroic—a bold, fearless figure of the stage, standing larger than life.
Transcending cliché, Mitchell’s opener, Irving Berlin’s iconic “There’s No Business Like Show Business” was so creatively arranged and delivered that surely the spirit of Berlin must have stood up to take notice. All of the arrangements—by Mitchell in tandem with Music Director/pianist, Tedd Firth—were fresh and exciting, combining compelling musical, as well as theatrical, ideas (a reflection of Mitchell’s own excellent musicality and theatricality). Proving the point, the combination of “The Windmills of Your Mind” (Michel Legrand /Marilyn and Alan Bergman) with an underlay of a Bach sonata, resulted in a stunning, dramatic presentation. On the traditional folk song, “The Water Is Wide,” Mitchell contributed with tin whistle and rain stick to the superb percussion of Marc McLean, one of the most talented drummers in the business. Mitchell’s mini-orchestra of top-class musicians provided superlative musical support throughout, with guitarist Steve Bargonetti and bassist Gary Haase, plus a string section of sublime lushness: Ann Labin and Tallie Brunfelt on violins, Pan Jocelin on viola and Andrew Nielson on cello.
The double entendre title of the show, Plays with Music (also the title of an upcoming album), illustrates Mitchell’s fearlessness in taking any risk possible to entertain. In fact, he considers playing with music a sacred duty. The bits of business, the acting, the twists and turns of melody and lyric are well-considered, calculated to be fun as well as to make a meaningful, personal connection with the audience. When he sings “If Ever I Would Leave You” (Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe), he has the ladies both laughing and swooning as he points and gesticulates to them, playing a lovable Lothario. This number, with its clever operatic lead-in, was sung in Mitchell’s deep chest voice—he has an excellent range—as was “Gesticulate” (Robert Wright/George Forrest), an amusing novelty number from Kismet. At the other end of Mitchell’s range, in a lighter head voice, he performed “The Man I Love” (George and Ira Gershwin), a number sung at a recent Broadway Backwards (wherein females sing tunes written for men, and vice versa), with an exquisite empathetic, emotional vulnerability. And in a “who knew?” moment, he surprised with a musical interlude on the melodica. In a similar turn-around, Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Not Getting Married Today” was offered at a Gilbert and Sullivan patter pace, followed up with a few engaging personal wedding stories and observations. For his late parents he dedicated a sweetly sung “By Myself /I Won’t Send Roses” (Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz/Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman). Searching the Internet for new material, his love of Halloween (his birthday) yielded gold, an intriguing and clever song, “A Wizard Every Day” (Liz Suggs/Nikko Benson).
In what many might hail as the perfect finale for Mitchell’s show, he addressed the current social state of the U.S. with finesse in a non-political, yet political way. “Raise your hands if you’re freaked out by the news,” he instructs. All hands in the room shoot up. As a panacea he offers a number by Stephen Sondheim, cut from the 1991 musical Assassins, “Flag Song;” it’s followed by “America the Beautiful” (Samuel A. Ward/Katherine Lee Bates) sung as a love ballad, during which the proverbial pin could have been heard dropping. Mitchell’s encore, “What a Wonderful World” (George Weiss/ Bob Theile), had patrons on their feet for a well-deserved, rousing, standing ovation. The New York Times once reported that Mitchell’s performances “sustain a mood of vaulting exhilaration.” Add to this, that on this night this astounding wizard of entertainment also created the perfect magical place of joy, optimism, hope and healing.
Brian Stokes Mitchell: Plays with Music, June 13, 15-17, 20-21, 23-24 at 7:00 PM at Feinstein’s/54Below (254 West 54th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). www.54Below.com
Photos (from video): Sandi Durell
Photo (with Tony Award): JK Clarke