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Brian Stokes Mitchell: Playing with Music

| June 21, 2017

Brian Stokes Mitchell

Playing with Music

Feinstein’s/54 Below, NYC, June 17, 2017

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors for Cabaret Scenes

Brian Stokes Mitchell

In 2008, at Feinstein’s at the Regency, Brian Stokes Mitchell celebrated the recent election of Barack Obama with an electrifying “America the Beautiful” followed by Ragtime‘s “Wheels of a Dream” by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. It was a stirring moment, bringing the audience to its feet.

The a cappella pairing still stirs nine years later when he performs it at Feinstein’s/54 Below. Although the political ambiance is darker, Brian Stokes Mitchell’s show, Playing with Music, offers an evening of joy and enthusiasm, performing familiar songs with a different spin. He has a unique artistry, a mix of acting, singing, and dancing talents with imagination and playfulness honed along his journey.

Called “Stokes,” Mitchell draws his energy from the audience. He communicates a portrait of himself, letting people get to know him through his patter and his music.What sets him apart are the musicality and vibe he adds to his selections. “I call it the radio that’s playing in my head,” he said. As an opener, the familiar “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (Irving Berlin) proves the point, each verse patterned with new time signatures and rhythms. He later sings “The Windmills of Your Mind” as Musical Director/pianist Tedd Firth intermingles the colors of Bach’s Prelude in C Minor. Remembering his father’s two happy marriages sets the perspective of “Hello, Young Lovers.”

His sense of play is demonstrated throughout the 90-minute show. From Kismet, with facial and physical expressiveness, he delivered “Gesticulate,” a specialty number by Robert Wright and George Forrest, adapted from the music of Alexander Borodin. He morphed two personalities for the comical “A Wizard Every Day” by Liz Suggs and Nikko Benson. In Stephen Sondheim’s full-speed-ahead, “Getting Married Today,” I could not hear a racing syllable that was not crystal clear as Stokes focused on an old biddy’s nasty comments about the jittery bride.

He switches genders and lifts the timbre of his resolute baritone voice to sing George and Ira Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” as a gay man, adding a blues aura with his melodica. A soulful pairing of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz’s “By Myself” with “I Won’t Send Roses” (Jerry Herman) evokes a feeling of haunting bitterness. Zeroing in on ringside couples and blushing young women, he dedicated “If Ever I Would Leave You.”

Co-arranging with Stokes, Tedd Firth on piano led a stand-out band including Steve Bavgenetti (guitar), Gary Haase (bass), Mark McLean (drums), Ann Labin (violin), Tally Brunfelt (violin), Jocelyn Pan (viola), and Andrew Nielson (cello).

Suitable for a show offering joy and enthusiasm when the world can use it, the show ended with “What a Wonderful World.”

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Category: Cabaret Reviews, New York City, New York City Cabaret Reviews, Regional

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