Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Tony-winner Mitchell serenades Strathmore

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Photo courtesy William Morris Agency
Get stoked: Tony Award-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell brings his brand of Broadway baritone to Strathmore on Friday.
They call him ‘‘The Last Leading Man,” but Tony Award-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell doesn’t get all caught up in that.

‘‘I’m honored,” he admits. ‘‘It’s a wonderful title to have put on me...but I’m all about the work, the shows.

‘‘I don’t get lost in the Tony Award stuff — I want to touch an audience, to connect with people, to bring something new to the table.

‘‘I just want to put on a good show.”

And on Friday, for the first time, Mitchell will put on a show in the Music Center at Strathmore. He’ll bring the booming baritone and movie star looks, plus a set list that starts on Broadway and ends up in a downtown jazz club. If his engaging interview manner is any indication, he’ll also come equipped with a refreshing, almost disarming, modesty.

‘‘It’s nice to have the recognition – I don’t bemoan it,” he says. ‘‘But I’m about the work. That’s why I’ve had such a happy career.”

He has a happy air about him, too. Mitchell’s down-to-earth charm makes him — Tony winner for ‘‘Kiss Me Kate,” nominee for ‘‘Man of La Mancha,” ‘‘King Hedley II” and ‘‘Ragtime,” filler of Gregory Hines’ enormous tap shoes in ‘‘Jelly’s Last Jam,” hilarious recurring guest on ‘‘Frasier,” president of the Actor’s Fund of America — seem remarkably accessible.

‘‘I’m a pretty normal guy — low key,” he says. ‘‘And I have a perfect career. I’m not such a big celebrity that I can’t have a normal life, so I get the best of both worlds.”

Don’t let the triple-barreled name fool you.

‘‘There were a lot of Brian Mitchells out there so I started using my full name,” he says, explaining the stage name change he made around the time he moved from television (playing ‘‘Jackpot” Jackson for seven years on ‘‘Trapper John, MD”) to Broadway. ‘‘My friends call me Stokes — you can call me Stokes.”

Growing up

Born in Seattle to a musical mom and dad, Mitchell says his ‘‘childhood was pretty much spent overseas.

‘‘I was 5 or 6 when we moved to San Diego, then it was Guam and the Philippines, and when we moved back to San Diego, I was 14.”

Mitchell’s dad, one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, was a civilian electronics engineer for the Navy who ‘‘would always have jazz on the hi-fi — and we always had the best hi-fi system in town.

‘‘We would wake up to the strains of Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan.”

All four Mitchell children gravitated toward the arts; the youngest made his stage debut in high school, then studied acting at the San Diego Junior Theater with Don and Bonnie Ward.

‘‘My mom, at first she was a little hesitant about it,” Mitchell admits. ‘‘Theater people have a reputation.”

And while he says his parents ‘‘were always very supportive of everything we wanted to do,” they were, nonetheless, ‘‘a very middle-class family, not ‘privileged,’ not ‘affluent.’”

Education was important; time and money spent on lessons were investments in the future. Mitchell moved forward with acting, performing at the San Diego Civic Light Opera and the Old Globe Theater, then joining the Twelfth Night Repertory Company and moving to Los Angeles before he was 20.

‘‘I don’t think I had a specific goal in mind, but it was something I worked at and studied,” he says. ‘‘My motto was — and still is — ‘I go where I’m wanted.’”

Mitchell is wanted at Strathmore.

In 2005, he performed at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Marvin Hamlisch. This time out, he’s bringing a musical sampler with a cabaret feel to the Music Center.

‘‘We find that there is an incredible audience in Montgomery County for these ‘Broadway-in-concert’ type shows,” says Strathmore spokesperson Georgina Javor. ‘‘When we have the opportunity to bring in these amazing soloists, half of the seats sell out on subscription. That’s an extraordinary number!

‘‘There’s a real desire concert-goers have to see these performers in their own backyard. ... People want to sponsor shows; people want to come.”

The 2,000-seat hall has hosted its share of Broadway legends: Tom Wopat and Faith Prince kicked things off when the Music Center opened in 2005. Since then, Patti LuPone, Mandy Patinkin, Betty Buckley and Bernadette Peters have wowed audiences; Jason Robert Brown brought his ‘‘Songs for a New World” along with Broadway performers Alice Ripley, Laura Griffith, Titus Burgess (currently Sebastian in ‘‘The Little Mermaid”) and Brian d’Arcy James.

Karen Akers, Barbara Cook, Michael Feinstein, Bebe Neuwirth — the list goes on and on. Javor notes that Mitchell’s performance is part of a ‘‘three-day Broadway tour” that combines lunch and a backstage ramble round the Kennedy Center on Wednesday, Champagne and dessert on Thursday before a lecture⁄concert by John Eaton, and a theater- choreography presentation with CityDance on Friday morning .

‘‘It’s been so well-received — people love it,” she says. ‘‘There’s not a huge cabaret scene in D.C., so people are hungry for it.”

And Mitchell is hungry for the opportunity to connect with his south-of-Broadway fans.

‘‘I don’t want to tell too much,” he teases. ‘‘I like a surprise. But I think people will be happy: a little ‘Man of LaMancha,’ a little ‘Ragtime.’

‘‘The thing I love about performing is that I can change the show — get it the way I want it.”

He promises Broadway standards and new material, too, playing ‘‘a little bit of everything” with his jazz quartet — Gerard D’Angelo on piano, Gary Haase on bass, Bob Magnuson on woodwinds and Buddy Williams on drums — not all leading man stuff.

‘‘I’m ‘the last leading man’ until the next one comes along,” he laughs. ‘‘But I am the luckiest actor in the world.”

Strathmore presents Brian Stokes Mitchell, accompanied by a quartet, at 8 p.m. Friday in the Music Center, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets range from $28 to $65. Call 301-581-5100 or visitwww.strathmore.org.