I first saw Mitchell on PBS, many years ago, when he appeared with Audra McDonald. I believe it was a concert excerpt from Porgy and Bess. All I really remember was being very impressed with his singing, his stage presence and charisma, which leaped off the screen. We’ve followed his career ever since.
And since that time, he’s won one Tony (Kiss Me, Kate), and been nominated for three more (one a drama) and been seen on such TV programs as Glee and on PBS in various Great Performances as well as holiday concerts from Washington, DC. This past week, he returned to Seattle for three pop concerts with the Seattle Symphony.
A television screen doesn’t do him justice. Mitchell possesses a baritone voice as deep and rich as a cup of Starbucks, and more powerful than you’d gather from television. He had the kind of voice which, at one point, led me to think, “Does he even NEED a mic?”
Mitchell made no opening remarks. He strode onto the stage, handsome in a dark suit, white shirt and silver necktie, and launched right into a song, I think “I’m Feeling Good” (Birds flyin’ high/You know how I feel…”). (It was one of those songs I’ve heard before but never caught the title).
Whatever its name, it was a great opening song, positive and infectious, and, with Mitchell’s stage presence, had the audience in the palm of his hand (which didn’t require much effort). Then, to show he was no slouch on show tunes, he followed with “How to Handle a Woman” from Camelot, before treating the audience to a rare treat. He delivered a touching song about show business–“Something” from an upcoming musical tentatively titled The Glorious Ones. His all-too-short first act was capped with three Gershwin songs. Halfway through this piece, I realized the Seattle Symphony had, somehow, magically, transformed itself into a Big Band.
The second half, this time with Mitchell in an open-collared red shirt, was just as delightful and surprising. He started with “Take the A Train“, which, before I knew it, took us through “Another Hundred People” from Sondheim’s Company, then rolled back around until we safely arrived back on the A Train.
Mitchell’s intent, through all this, was to showcase his versatility, and it worked. Show tune or Songbook, he was comfortably at home with all manner of styles. He even sang an Antonio Carlos Jobim tune, “Rain”, because he loves Brazilian jazz. He danced and directed an audience-response rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
Mitchell took us through several more songs before closing with “America the Beautiful” (only sung in English), and “On the Wheels of a Dream” from Ragtime (Which brought him another of his Tony noms, as leading actor in a musical).
Of course, that wasn’t enough, so he graciously consented to an encore to satisfy a houseful of cheering fans.
Throughout the concert, he kept talking to the audience, telling us of his life as a military brat (his father was one of the Tuskegee Airmen and Mitchell himself was born in Seattle when his father was stationed here; of course, he didn’t stay here long). Once, Mitchell even graciously moved a stool onstage so it wouldn’t block the view of audience members.
Seattle was coming out of a snowstorm, most of which fell during the night and the morning of the concert. That’s the only reason I can think why the house was maybe two thirds full. Those who stayed at home really missed an event. (What a week for Seattle! First we won the Super Bowl, and then Brian Stokes Mitchell).
Mitchell was ably supported by the Seattle Symphony, directed by guest conductor Robert Bernhardt, and Mitchell’s own pianist, Tedd Firth.
Mitchell is very personable, warm and engaging. Not only did we enjoy his performance but he’s also the kind of person you’d want to have over for dinner, drinks and conversation.