By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
Brian Stokes Mitchell
Friday, March 9, 2012 The Broad Stage
Next performance: Tomorrow at 4 p.m.
Brian Stokes Mitchell is a true Renaissance man: children’s
book author (On Broadway, with Brian
Stokes Mitchell), TV star (Trapper
John, M.D., Fraiser, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and most recently, Glee), among other talents. However,
he’s still best known as an iconic, Tony Award-winning Broadway musical theatre
star, a worthy successor to baritone legends such as John Raitt.
Now age 54, Stokes (as he prefers to be called, as opposed
to Mitchell) has forsaken the eight-shows-in-a-week grind of Broadway in favor
of concert and semi-staged performances of musicals, but he has also created a
90-minute long, stylishly crafted, winsomely performed show that made its local
debut at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica last night.
The show was entitled “From Broadway to The Broad,” ignoring
the fact that the name of the stage is pronounced “brode” (the hall was funded,
in part, through a gift from Eli and Edythe Broad). There was, of course, a
generous helping of powerfully sung Broadway favorites sprinkled throughout the
program (Stokes opened with Some
Enchanted Evening from South Pacific
and encored with The Impossible Dream from
Man of La Mancha).
Stokes really connects with the audience (at one point, even
getting them sing the responses in It
Ain’t Necessarily So from Porgy and
Bess) and his diction was excellent throughout the evening. Along the way, he wove stories about
his childhood, his performing life, and what it’s like to be the father of a
precocious eight-year-old son (the image pictured right is obviously several
years old) — along with other musical genres — into the fast-paced show. He
even managed to graciously hawk his book, proceeds of which benefit The Actors’
He was backed by a sensitive accompanying quartet: Jeff Colella
(who doubled as music director) on piano; Chris Colangelo, bass guitar; Rod
Harbour, drums; and Bob Shepherd, who sparkled on several different wind
instruments throughout the evening.
After the Some
Enchanted Evening opener, Stokes sang material from George Gershwin (songs
and two selections from Porgy and Bess), the
Brazilian hit Waters of March, Stars (aided by a sensitive lighting
scheme by Michael Flowers) and a poignant medley of It isn’t Easy Being Green and Hooray.
Along the way, he slipped in a couple of pointed political
jibes; he applauded the number of states that have passed gay-marriage laws and
followed that by singing Hello, Young
Lovers from The King and I — the
context gave the familiar lyrics quite a different spin.
Before encoring with The
Impossible Dream, Stokes paired an a cappella rendition of the first and
last verses of America the Beautiful (singing
the last refrain as God shed her grace on
thee; and crown thy good with sisterhood …”) with Wheels of a Dream from Ragtime.
For many people in attendance, the show’s highlight came in
the middle. After recounting the back story of how he became involved with the
2005 concert performance of South Pacific
in Carnegie Hall (a performance captured, tbankfully on DVD) and noting
that the musical was originally performed in 1949 and 1950 without
amplification (“cheaters” he called it), Mitchell honored that tradition with a
gripping rendition of This Nearly Was
Mine sung “au naturele” (without a microphone). His powerful baritone carried
wonderfully in the flattering acoustic of the intimate Broad Stage; indeed, at
least this critic wished the entire show had been done without amplification. This Nearly Was Mine received an
eminently deserved standing ovation from the capacity audience, and there were
more than a few tears flowing.
Stokes represents an earlier era of Broadway musicals, one
that young people today rarely get the chance to experience. However, this show
is deeper and richer than mere nostalgia, so if you can get a ticket for
tomorrow’s final performance, grab it.
One kvetch about Stokes’ commentary: South Pacific was not the first Broadway musical to tackle racism. Show Boat in 1927 had the same theme as
part of that landmark show.
If you’ve never seen The Broad Stage, that’s another
reason to see this show. With just 499 seats and plenty of wood accents, the
acoustics are intimate and flattering and the seats seem wider than normal, in
part because of the low arms.
Another bonus: parking is free and the theater (which is
part of the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center) is accessible via
public transit (Metro’s 704 Rapid Line stops two blocks from the hall and Santa
Monica’s Big Blue Bus runs on Santa Monica Blvd., as well). Some day, Metro’s
Expo Line will be within walking distance.
The hall is a short walk from the Third Street Promenade
and the beach, so if you’re going tomorrow, make a day of it.
Last night’s show was followed by free wine and hors
d’oeuvres, a nice touch that other halls would do well to emulate.
* The Broad Stage is quite a busy spot with six more
programs scheduled during March. Broadway music lovers will want to mark March
31 on their calendars because Jason Robert Brown, whose songs in the musical Parade won him a Tony, comes to the hall
with the Caucasian Rhythm & Brass Kings and Anika Noni Rose. Information: www.thebroadstage.com
(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.