When Brian Stokes Mitchell became a father a decade ago, he made a conscious decision to take a hiatus from the Broadway stage.
Mitchell had been a dominant force on the Great White Way since his electrifying, Tony Award-nominated performance as the tragic hero Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the 1998 musical “Ragtime.” He earned a Tony Award in 2000 for a revival of the Cole Porter musical “Kiss Me Kate” and received nominations for August Wilson’s 2001 drama “King Hedley II” and in 2003 for a revival of the musical “Man of La Mancha.”
FOR THE RECORD:
Shakespeare: An Oct. 6 Calendar article on Brian Stokes Mitchell said the singer and actor had appeared in the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Rather, he had appeared in “Much Ado About Nothing.” —
“I have been fortunate in my career to play a lot of lead roles,” said Mitchell, 56, by phone from his home in New York. “The downside to that is I don’t have a life outside of the show. I go on lockdown even with my wife if the show is really difficult and I am having vocal problems. That usually happens around the first two weeks of a show, because they stack so many shows together, and you record the album at the same time.”
Mitchell didn’t want to go on lockdown with his son, Ellington. “I wanted to be able to laugh and scream and yell and make funny noises and not worry about my voice,” he said. “I wanted to be fully engaged with him.”
So he stepped into the concert world starting with a cabaret performance at Feinstein’s at the Regency in New York in 2005. The venues have gotten bigger over the last decade, including the Hollywood Bowl, Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall and Tanglewood.
This week, he will be performing selections from his 2012 “Simply Broadway” CD, accompanied by pianist Tedd Firth at Actors Fund benefit concerts Monday at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood and Friday at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.
“It’s a beautiful kind of a haiku show,” said Mitchell. “But it’s also incredibly full because I get to create and play the characters onstage. It’s done in a way that the audience really listens to the music and the lyrics.”
He’s picked showstoppers that demonstrate the range of his rich baritone voice, including “How to Handle a Woman” from “Camelot,” “If I Were a Rich Man” from “Fiddler on the Roof,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from “Porgy and Bess” and “Some Enchanted Evening” from “South Pacific.”
Performing in concert, he said, “gives me all the perks and joys of doing a live Broadway show, because I am with a live audience. And I can say whatever I want to the audience and change it every night. I love to tell stories and do a show as if I was in my living room. I want the audience to feel like I’m sitting in my living room when I perform as well, so even in a 25,000-seat theater, it feels very intimate.”
He performed in musicals in high school in San Diego, making his professional debut at age 16 in “Godspell” at the Old Globe. But Mitchell first made a name for himself as intern Dr. Justin “Jackpot” Jackson on the 1979-86 CBS medical drama “Trapper John, M.D.”
The show was a terrific experience that allowed him to make the jump to Broadway, Mitchell said. He made his Broadway debut in 1988 in the short-lived musical “Mail,” for which he received a Theatre World Award, and he replaced the leads in “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
Then he got “Ragtime.”
“To this date, it was the most magical show I have ever done,” Mitchell said, later adding, “I had a huge sense that this show was going to be something very unusual and great for me. It was one of the reasons I felt I was put on this planet.”
Mitchell has “a tremendous range and charisma and carries himself on a live stage in a way that has become unique,” said Jack Viertel, senior vice president of Jujamcyn Theatres, which owns Broadway houses and produces plays and musicals.
Viertel, who also is artistic director of Encores! — the “Great American Musicals in Concert” series at New York City Center — cast Mitchell in Encores! productions of “Do Re Mi,” “Kismet” and “Carnival.”
“He’s a man of the theater,” Viertel said. “Not that there aren’t younger leading men coming along who are wonderful, but Stokes has that particular kind of Broadway voice that just knocks you out. I don’t think there will be another one like him.”
Once the singer’s son was older, Mitchell ventured back onstage. Three years ago, he starred on Broadway in the short-lived musical “Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” and this summer, he appeared in New York’s Central Park in the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
Next month, he’s starring in a special Encores! event, “The Band Wagon,” based on the 1953 classic MGM musical starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse and featuring the music of Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. (Astaire headlined on Broadway in the 1930 musical revue of the same name.)
The Encores! musical will be directed and choreographed by Tony winner Kathleen Marshall and features a book by Tony nominee Douglas Carter Beane based on the screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
Though he has danced in musicals, Mitchell won’t be attempting to channel Astaire. So the role will be adjusted to fit his abilities.
And if the show is a hit, it may have an encore on Broadway.
“We’ll see what happens,” Mitchell said.