RIVERSIDE –Brian Stokes Mitchell makes elegance look easy.
That’s the only simple thing about Friday night’s “Simply Broadway” concert (11/2/12) in the Riverside Casino Event Center.
With an appreciative audience of about 325, too few people were on hand to revel in this world-class Hancher concert featuring a much-lauded Broadway star who also lights up television and film screens with his charisma and charm.
What a rare and wonderful treat to experience the magnitude of his talent — the epitome of elegant, sophisticated conversation. He was showered with multiple, immediate standing ovations.
Mitchell, 55, has been on the scene since 1979, with roles in “Roots: The Next Generation” and “Trapper John, M.D., on television, then made the leap to Broadway where he won a Tony for the 1999 revival of “Kiss Me Kate.”
With the rumbling resonance of his passionate lyric baritone, it’s no wonder he’s made his mark as a leading man — even if he does specialize in bad-boy romantic roles, from “Man of La Mancha” and “Ragtime” to “South Pacific,” “Sweeney Todd” and Javert in “Les Miserables.”
Most recently, he’s played one of Rachel’s two dads on television’s popular “Glee.” (For trivia fans: Lea Michele, who plays Rachel, also was a Broadway baby, appearing with Stokes in the 1998 production of “Ragtime,” which garnered him another Tony nomination.)
His new CD, released Oct. 30, is titled “Simply Broadway,” mostly because the collection of classics is stripped down to the essence of artistry, recorded with just his voice and a piano. That’s how he came to Riverside, too.
And that’s all we needed.
The concert focused mostly on the music Mitchell has sung on Broadway, but nothing about this was simply singing. Mitchell is a master interpreter, slipping instantly and fully into each character with an ease and strength, exuding emotion from every fiber of his being. He didn’t sing like Miguel de Cervantes or King Arthur or Sir Lancelot or Emile de Becque, he WAS all those men, transporting us to the heart of La Mancha, Camelot and the South Pacific.
His microphone stand became a lance as he tilted at windmills, his smile sparkled in the spotlight and he talked to us — really talked to us. He freely gave us glimpses into his life, his work and all he holds dear to his heart, from the pride he feels in his father being one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen to the joy he feels watching his nearly 9-year-old son discover the world around him.
He spoke passionately about the charity he champions, the Actor’s Fund, which gives financial support and social services to any show business worker in time of need. After the concert, Mitchell greeted fans in the lobby, signing copies of his new children’s book, an A to Z primer titled “Lights on Broadway” and his new CDs. Proceeds from Friday’s sales were channeled into the fund, especially needed in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which displaced so many Broadway performers, technicians, musicians and others who work behind the scenes.
He passionately applauded Hancher and its supporters working so hard to keep the arts alive and flowing through Eastern Iowa in the aftermath of our own natural disaster four years ago. He drew wild applause when he said he can’t wait to come back to Iowa — and wants to perform on the new Hancher stage, due back in 2015 or 2016.
Until that time, we have to spread the gospel of just how magnificent a performance that will be. Any night in which Brian Stokes Mitchell steps up into the spotlight is some enchanted evening.
That’s how he started the show, then moved seamlessly through “I, Don Quixote” from “Man of La Mancha”; C’est Moi” and perhaps the most gorgeous rendition ever of “How to Handle a Woman” from “Camelot,” a most ahh-inspiring moment; the hilarious newlywed’s lament “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” from “Kiss Me Kate,” as he thumbed through his little black book; and “Stars” from “Les Miserables.”
He took a step back and time and sang “This Nearly Was Mine” without a microphone, just using all the physical and emotional tools in his being to convey this mesmerizing apex from “South Pacific.”
In the second half, he turned to his roots and cranked out some jazz that his engineer-father played on their souped up stereos. He gave Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” an uptempo turn, with fantastic improv, walking bass and boogie woogie touches from his fabulous pianist, then took us to Brazil for a captivating song about the spring rains, “The Waters of March,” dripping with quiet, breathy, exotic intensity.
Too soon the evening came to an end, but not before spinning the “Wheels of a Dream” from “Ragtime” and encores of “What a Wonderful World,” “(We’ll Catch Up) Some Other Time” and reaching impossible heights with “The Impossible Dream.”
When he comes back to Iowa, scale the highest heights to hear him.