Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Brian Stokes Mitchell
Arizona Musicfest
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Broadway and Beyond with Matt Doyle and the Phoenix Symphony, And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, , The Lion in Winter, and Aladdin


Brian Stokes Mitchell
Photo Courtesy of Brian Stokes Mitchell / Arizona Musicfest
Every year, Arizona Musicfest presents dozens of concerts that feature a wide range of music styles and many well-known artists. Last week, Tony Award winning actor and singer Brian Stokes Mitchell delighted the Musicfest audience in a concert of Broadway songs and personal stories with an abundance of charm and a voice that is both powerful and clear. With gifted musical director and accompanist Tedd Firth on piano, it was a stellar evening of story and song.

Mitchell won the Tony for his role in the 1999 Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate, though he's probably best known for creating the part of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in the musical Ragtime. He has also appeared in several TV shows, including the recently debuted CBS sitcom "Fam." I've seen him in all of his Tony nominated roles as well as numerous times in concert and he continually strikes me as a consummate performer. He commands the stage with a firm presence, embodies every character he plays, even when singing a standalone song, and his voice pulls the audience in with its clear tones, rich and passionate delivery, and firm connection to the lyrics.

The evening featured several tunes from his "Simply Broadway" album as well as some songs recently added to his repertoire that he mentioned are on his upcoming recording "Plays with Music," including a new number from some up and coming songwriters. He opened the show with a soft yet powerful version of "Feeling Good" from The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd, which featured an a capella start that allowed Mitchell's voice to shine. This was followed by a slowed down arrangement of "There's No Business Like Show Business" from Annie Get Your Gun that allowed for a firm emphasize on the lyrics of the song.

Mitchell's concerts are always more than just a singer singing a selection of songs as they feature mini-theatrical performances in which he embodies the characters from the classic musicals who sang those songs on stage. With a shift in diction, dialect and tone, te transforms himself into each new character from song to song, sometimes even playing multiple roles in one number, which gives a theatrical feel to his concerts. These mini-musical segments included a beautifully sung "I, Don Quixote" from Man of La Mancha with Mitchell singing several verses of the number in Spanish, which emphasized the original basis of the character in the song. He then morphed into several of the male characters in Camelot in songs from that show that included a heartfelt "How to Handle a Woman" and a romantic "If Ever I Would Leave You."

He talked about how, when he first saw Les Misérables, he didn't "get" the show even though everyone around him was moved to tears from the emotional connection they had to the musical and the characters. However, he said that when he got the chance to play Javert in a concert version at the Hollywood Bowl, he finally understood how the musical celebrates hope. He also mentioned that playing Javier, even though he is the villain of the piece, was so much fun as "Javert doesn't think he's a bad guy. He didn't read the book!" His stirring performance of Javert's "Stars" was exceptional.

Mitchell talked about being asked a few years back to perform at the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS "Broadway Backwards" benefit concert in New York where men sing songs written for women and vice versa. His version of the song that he sang at that benefit, the Gershwins' "The Man I Love," was beautifully done and infused with emotion and vulnerability, and he also spoke about how he's happy to live in a world where anyone can finally marry the person they love, regardless of gender. That statement segued into a hilarious version of "Getting Married Today" from Company that featured Mitchell playing all three characters in the number, including delivering the fast-paced lyrics of the frenzied bride without missing a beat. He also sang another Gershwin song, "It Ain't Necessarily So" from Porgy and Bess, which received a powerful interpretation.

Mitchell spoke about how he was a shy wallflower when he was a kid and the troubles many of us experienced of feeling different with a pairing of "It's Not Easy Being Green" and Bruce Hornsby's "Hooray for Tom." He followed this with a beautiful performance of the story song "A Wizard Every Day," with music by up and coming composer Nikko Benson and clever lyrics by Liz Suggs. Mitchell then asked the audience if anyone is freaked out when they watch the news lately and said he hopes we can all find a common ground. He then ended the concert with two very different "patriotic" songs, Stephen Sondheim's "The Flag Song," which was cut from Assassins, and a beautiful pairing of "America the Beautiful" and "Wheels of a Dream" from Ragtime, which he said was "the most magical show I've done."

He came back for two encores including a spotless and soaring delivery of "The Impossible Dream (The Quest)" from Man of La Mancha and a bright and moving "Wonderful World," which also afforded Mitchell the chance to show off his musical abilities by playing the melodica during a musical interlude in the middle of the tune.

With a soaring voice, a personal connection with the audience, and a commanding stage presence, Brian Stokes Mitchell is the quintessential entertainer. His Arizona Musicfest concert proved to be a beautiful evening full of powerful Broadway songs and a nice mix of personally humorous and heartfelt stories.

Although its auditorium is very large, Highlands Church, where the majority of the Arizona Musicfest performances are held, proved to be an excellent venue for this concert. The sight lines are clear from any seat, the acoustics are impeccable, and there are two large video screens on the sides of the stage that provided excellent close-up views from the several cameras that were located throughout the venue, including one that focused numerous times on the skilled piano work from accompanist Firth.

Brian Stokes Mitchell performed at the Arizona Musicfest in Scottsdale, Arizona, on February 7, 2019. Information for upcoming Arizona Musicfest concerts can be found at www.azmusicfest.org


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