Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Simply Brian Stokes Mitchell

The Broadway baritone himself.
Sometimes there's not much to say in a review - particularly in a rave about a performer who's already a known quantity. The talent is too obvious; the command too assured - and the reputation too clearly deserved. There's nothing to quibble over, little to scrape away, no false impressions to dispel, no myth to overturn.

See what I mean? Not much to say. Aside from all the superlatives that everybody else has already said.

But that's the quandary facing any reviewer of baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell (at left), who last weekend brought his one-man show, "Simply Broadway" to Sanders Theatre as part of Celebrity Series' 75th anniversary season.

And over the course of 90 or so minutes, with his usual accompanist (the virtuosic Tedd Firth) tickling the ivories, Mr. Mitchell sailed (or soared) through a range of Broadway classics - mostly culled from his latest CD, I suppose I should mention, which did at times give the sunny beam of his stage patter a slightly mercantile shadow.

But I didn't really mind, for the evening proved enchanted - and no, not just because Mr. Mitchell sang "Some Enchanted Evening" (thank you, thank you).  For if this baritone was hawking something, well, he was giving something away, too - something precious; Mitchell generously allowed us to bask for a time in a talent and persona that easily encompass many of Broadway's greatest roles, from Don Quixote of Man of La Mancha to Sportin' Life of Porgy and Bess to (yes) even Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof.

Well, maybe he didn't quite convince as Tevye; there's an edge to Mitchell's obvious intelligence that doesn't quite align with the milkman's warm, wry humility. But this was his only major mis-step.  Although I suppose you could argue that he sometimes over-sells what is most effective at its simplest ("Some Other Time,""What a Wonderful World").

But the burnished power of Mitchell's voice, and the range of his talent, were stunning all the same - and it must be said that he isn't simply a "singer" but a singing actor in the deepest sense of the word (and his dance moves ain't bad, either). So Mr. Mitchell contains multitudes. His Don Quixote was remarkable (he was nominated for a Tony for the role), while his Javert was coldly thrilling ("Stars"); and his take on Billy Bigelow from Carousel was, well, just about perfect ("Soliloquy").  He likewise did full justice to not only Lancelot ("C'est Moi") but also King Arthur ("How to Handle a Woman") from Camelot. But wait, there's more - a happily heartless "A Woman is a Sometime Thing" from Porgy, of course "The Impossible Dream" from La Mancha, and several smart helpings of Sondheim, including a version of "Sorry-Grateful" in which Mitchell switched the genders of his pronouns back and forth in a charming nod to gay marriage (alas, he's straight, and married too, guys and girls). The baritone was perhaps at his most moving, however, in a daringly intimate version of "What Kind of Fool Am I?" (which also featured the most lyrical of Firth's piano arrangements).

So I'm trying to think of something to criticize. Oh wait - there is something: Mr. Mitchell could definitely use a better scriptwriter for his patter.  He's sweet, but also clearly reaching to fill time at some points. Not that there's anything wrong with warming up the house with stage banter; but in the case of Brian Stokes Mitchell, you'd really rather just listen to him sing.

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