Singer and actor Brian Stokes Mitchell is talking excitedly about being “alone up there on the wire” in his one-man Simply Broadway concert, which arrives at Helzberg Hall in Kansas City’s Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts on May 10, presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series.
But it’s not just a metaphor for the popular Broadway, television and recording artist. During a 40-year career that has included a Tony Award (2000, for the revival of Kiss Me, Kate) and two presidential performances (Clinton and Obama), the Seattle, Wash., native actually learned how to walk the high wire.
“It was a lifetime ago,” Mitchell says with a laugh during a lively phone conversation from a recent tour stop. “I was doing a television series called Trapper John, and they invited me to be on a program called Circus of the Stars. So I had to learn how to walk, jump rope and ride a bike on a high wire. It was a real life lesson for me. Performers walk the tightrope quite a bit, actually.”
The metaphor seems apt for his Simply Broadway performance, which takes its title from his most recent recording. Mitchell says he was inspired by a similar “unplugged” recording by the veteran song stylist Tony Bennett, who also went back to basics for a piano and vocal album. A collaboration with longtime pianist Tedd Firth, Simply Broadway was produced without the multiple layers of overdubs and technological sleight-of-hand found on many contemporary recordings.
“When you take away the distraction of the timpani roll and the brass fanfare, you’re forced to listen to the song itself—the lyrics and the harmonic structure,” Mitchell says. “It’s never more laid bare. With just you and the piano up there, there’s nothing to hide behind. It’s a very pure experience.”
The son of a civilian engineer for the U.S. Navy, Mitchell spent his childhood at a number of overseas military bases before his family landed in San Diego. The commanding baritone who the New York Times would one day proclaim as “the last leading man” got his first taste of the footlights at the age of 14 when he played the role of Conrad in his high school’s production of Bye, Bye Birdie.
So began a lifelong love affair with musical theatre. Mitchell will share his passion with Kansas City audiences in the theatrical concert presentation, which showcases tunes associated with such diverse Broadway characters as Tevye the impoverished Russian milkman in Fiddler on the Roof and Javert, the obsessive French policeman from Les Miserables.
“Each song is like a mini-musical unto itself, and I try to embody the characters and the context from the shows,” Mitchell says. “What I think audiences will find striking is how similar they are to us, and how many of the same emotions we share — the anger, the pride and the joy.”
As a recurring cast member on the television series Glee, Mitchell has been a part of the renaissance in the popularity of show tunes. But for him the appeal of this music is constant and reaches across any generational divisions.
“These songs really are universal,” Mitchell says. “It hits us where we live. We get to experience life through these characters’ lives, and it connects us in a very human way.” The musical theatre art form deals with universal themes, Mitchell believes, and for that reason the material never seems dated. “Any good story speaks to the human condition and the human heart, and that never seems to change,” he says. “What changes are just the trappings of civilization. We will always be drawn to songs and stories about falling in love and raising our children and the things that link us as human beings. Great songwriters make us feel less alone, because their work brings us closer together.”
Mitchell believes the piano and vocal treatment will allow audiences to experience these songs in a new way. “I hope they’ll rediscover how rich and beautiful and gorgeous they are, and how deeply they are able to reach into our souls. With these arrangements, the songs have a way of going straight into you. It’s like the razor-sharp light of a laser as opposed to the diffuse glow of an incandescent bulb.”
The solo performance style offers both risks and rewards for the performer. “It’s a real feeling of exhilaration when you can feel the audience coming along with you. They’re really like another character in the show, because they bring a different energy with them every night, and that affects the performance in so many ways.”
Mitchell says that one of his goals with his live performances is to instill a sense of community in his audiences. “My hope is that it will bring people closer together and help them understand themselves a little more clearly, as well as help them be more empathetic. I want them to understand that we’re all in this together. Hopefully, it should be a little like a church service — you should feel better coming out than you did going in.”
In addition to his concert appearances, upcoming projects include additional recordings, including a possible follow-up to Simply Broadway, which was named one of the best albums of the year by USA Today in 2013. He will perform the role of King Arthur in a concert version of Camelot this spring at Washington’s Kennedy Center, the site of his critically acclaimed performance of the title role in Sweeney Todd during the center’s 2002 celebration of Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim. It will be the final performance staged during the tenure of Kennedy Center Executive Director Michael Kaiser, who also led the Kansas City Ballet to regional prominence during his time at the helm of that local arts organization during the 1980s.
“Sweeney was Michael’s first production as the head of the Kennedy Center, and he asked me to come and do Camelot as his last show before retiring, so it’s a nice kind of book-ending,” Mitchell says as the animated telephone conversation winds down. The performer sees many parallels between Camelot’s ever-idealistic King Arthur and the determined optimism of Man of La Mancha’s Don Quixote, a role which earned him a Tony nomination in 2003.
“The song from Man of La Mancha is not called The Impossible Dream,” he notes. “It’s called The Quest. It’s the trying that’s important, and it’s the journey that counts.”
An hour later, my cell phone lights up with an unfamiliar number. “It’s Brian,” says a deep-throated voice. “You asked me earlier what I wanted the audience to take away with them from the concert in Kansas City, and I used way too many words in my answer. What I hope they’ll realize is something I try to think about every day: Life is wondrous. It’s as simple as that.”
To order tickets for Brian Stokes Mitchell’s Simply Broadway concert, select seats online at www.hjseries.org or call 816-415-5025 for assistance.
Brian Stokes sings Simply Broadway
Presenter: Harriman-Jewell Series
Where: Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts: Helzberg Hall
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, May 10, 2014
Tickets: Select seats online at www.hjseries.org or call 816-415-5025 for assistance.