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The Showmanship of Brian Stokes Mitchell

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There is something intrinsic about a concert that brings people together to watch a spectacle of talent. Of course the musicians, the notes they play, and even the stage itself contribute to the performance atmosphere, but it’s the performer who makes or breaks the show. On Thursday night, April 19, Irvine Barclay Theatre hosted the Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell as a part of their Broadway Cabaret series. Mitchell is well known for his starring roles in “Ragtime” and “Man of La Mancha,” having also participated in different films and television shows, such as “Mr. Robot” and “The Path” on Hulu. With this show titled “Simply Broadway,” Mitchell consistently put his heart out on the stage, giving the audience a show full of life and showcasing his passion for the thing he’s dedicated his life to: performance.

As the audience took their seats, the main stage was set with a single grand piano taking up the center, and the microphone stand waiting for its performer right up front. The back wall of the stage was framed with blue lighting and the silhouette of a city landscape, ready for the night to begin. Finally as the lights went low, Mitchell and the pianist, Tedd Firth, entered the auditorium, welcomed by a joyful and friendly audience. With his deep blue suit and wide smile, Mitchell started the night off with a simplified version of the classic show tune “Feeling Good,” made popular by Michael Bublé. His deep voice echoed through the theater as he sang the first lines acapella before Firth entered in playing the piano. It was a good sign of how well the rest of the show would go.

Quickly after the applause died down, Mitchell went straight into his second song of the night, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” His strong vocals flowed like a wave over the audience, captivating both life-long fans and newcomers alike. It was in this number where Mitchell’s charisma began to shine through, as he showed independence from his solitary  spot at the mic stand. Although his voice remained steady, his showmanship took him across the stage multiple times as he not only sang the music he had chosen but acted along to the stories they told. His first words of the night welcomed the audience of Irvine, as he proclaimed it was his first time ever performing at the Barclay, and he complimented the university’s “gorgeous campus.” “The only place where you could run into an anteater,” he joked. His stage presence was undoubtedly commanding and it remained for the rest of the night.

Mitchell made sure the audience was aware of his love for music, describing the night’s playlist as songs he wants to sing. Before he continued, he sang praises for the pianist and his long time friend Firth, whose piano playing surely set the tone of the stage and beautifully complimented Mitchell’s singing and style. The concert would consist of songs from his most recent album “Simply Broadway” released in 2012 and also from his upcoming album titled “Plays With Music,” addressing his goal of the night: to play with music. “Do you want to play along,” he asked the audience before continuing the rest of his performance.

The music took off as Mitchell stepped into his first character of the night in singing the titular song “Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote),” referring to his performance from 2002. His performance proved to not only be entertaining but comedic as he took every opportunity to make the audience laugh as he went along, from pretending to put on a helmet to holding up the mic as a lance as a finishing touch. The dramatics and acting came into play with every song that followed, whether it was the sweeter melody of “How to Handle a Woman” to the love ballad “If Ever I Would Leave You” (both from “Camelot”). Whether it was playing an old medieval wizard giving advice or pretending to be a knight serenading different members of the audience, Mitchell never ceased to amaze and entertain.

Having also appeared in different musical concerts, Mitchell tells the story of first seeing “Les Miserables” and wondering why the show was so long. As the audience laughed, he shared that once he played the role of Javert at the Hollywood Bowl, he found an appreciation for the musical. His rendition of “Stars” caused immediate silence to fall as his rich and powerful voice displayed the musical beauty of the character’s internal struggle. During his performance of “The Man I Love” written by the Gershwin brothers, Mitchell broke out a Melodica with which he played part of the song’s instrumentals. His next showstopper was “Getting Married Today” from the show “Company,” playing three different characters, including one whose lyrics are performed very rapidly as in a panic which Mitchell rushed through flawlessly. At one point, he invited the audience to join in by echoing certain lines from another Gershwin number “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” conducting each seating section with great eccentricity and control. He truly made the music come alive.

As the night began to wind down, Mitchell turned to more personal stories, such as his Jr. High dance experience, leading into a mashup of Kermit’s “It’s Not Easy Being Green” and “Hooray for Tom” by American singer Bruce Hornsby. His love for music proved to go beyond his own experience as he performed a number he found on the internet, “A Wizard Every Day,” created by students Nikko Benson and Liz Suggs, from whom he requested the song from, identifying with the message of seizing magic found in the everyday. Before ending the night, Mitchell introduced a more patriotic theme for his last three songs. He describes an interaction with the renowned composer Stephen Sondheim, where he was asked to sing a song that was cut from one of his musicals which however he never got to sing but decided to share that night. Mitchell then sang a beautiful version of “America the Beautiful” acapella, changing pronouns such as “God shed [her] grace on thee” or replacing “brotherhood” with “sisterhood” to identify the modern age. He ended the show by acknowledging the 20th anniversary of his show “Ragtime” and singing “Wheels of a Dream.”

The audience rose to their feet as their energy and clapping filled the theater, and Mitchell’s smile grew wider with each second. He beamed as he left the stage, wishing blessings for the audience, only to come back on stage and very willingly perform an encore. He sang two more songs by request of the audience, who had shouted out their favorites. He officially closed the night with “What a Wonderful World,” also sharing that “we could never have too much art in the world.” It is through talented artists like Brian Stokes Mitchell and Tedd Firth that the beauty and magic of music can still come alive to the beating hearts of those willing to listen and enjoy.