Stokes at Feinstein’s, November 2008 - REVIEWS



stokes-feinsteins-nytimes-tefan-cohenDid Someone Say an Impossible Dream? Not Anymore

Photo Tefan Cohen for The New York Times

Published: November 12, 2008

Brian Stokes Mitchell: sings, and dares you to be happy, in his latest cabaret show.

Brian Stokes Mitchell seized the moment on Tuesday evening. That moment, still fresh in the hearts and minds of the packed crowd at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, where he opened a too-short five-night engagement, was the election to the presidency a week earlier of Barack Obama, a politician to whom he bears striking resemblances.

Both are tall, lean, handsome African-Americans with a naturally heroic bearing. (Mr. Mitchell, at 51, is four years older than the president-elect.) Both are gifted at oratory: Mr. Obama when he speaks, and Mr. Mitchell when he wraps his deep commanding baritone around a song like “The Impossible Dream.” In Mr. Mitchell’s hands on Tuesday the vow of perseverance against all odds from “Man of La Mancha” was reinvigorated with a startling conviction. It inevitably echoed the themes of Mr. Obama’s books, “Dreams From My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope.”

Mr. Mitchell hadn’t been planning to sing it, he said, until Mr. Obama’s victory. Suddenly a song you may never have wanted to hear again seemed a vital, even necessary acknowledgment of the historic moment when one man’s dreams came true.

A little earlier in the show he delivered a stirring a cappella “America the Beautiful” joined to “Wheels of a Dream,” the Flaherty-Ahrens anthem from “Ragtime,” sung by Coalhouse Walker Jr., the African-American father-to-be Mr. Mitchell portrayed on Broadway, who anticipates a brighter American future.

As for Mr. Mitchell’s personal beliefs, you might describe them, with all due respect to Hubert H. Humphrey who exploited the slogan to little effect, as “the politics of joy.” Mr. Mitchell’s singing is infused with an innately childlike enthusiasm. Singing Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” he became an excitable little boy exclaiming over the imaginary green-and-yellow basket in his hands. Its tune, he pointed out, is a really the primal children’s cry of “nyah-nyah-nyah” and also of “Ring Around the Rosie.”

“A-Tisket, A-Tasket” shared a similar childlike playfulness with two Antonio Carlos Jobim classics, “One Note Samba” and “Waters of March,” performed early in the set. Along with the spirit of saudade, the Brazilian-Portuguese term for an indefinable nostalgia-tinged longing that is an essential ingredient of Jobim’s music, goes the pantheistic exuberance of a kid playing in a brook on a spring morning. “Waters of March,” Mr. Mitchell observed, is a celebration of the arrival of the Brazilian rainy season.

Jeff Peterson, a leading Hawaiian slack-key guitarist, the percussionist Bashiri Johnson and the bassist Gary Haase accompanied Mr. Mitchell. As unfussy as they were stylistically flexible, they gave him ample room to frolic unfettered on the playground of his musical imagination.

The opening number, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” assumed South African rhythms and textures. A gregarious “Nearness of You,” directed as much to the humanity in general as to a lover, became a spare acoustic ballad. A similarly uncluttered “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” conjured a carefree romantic fantasy of blue skies and happily-ever-after. “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” soared heavenward.

And there you have Mr. Mitchell, a singer who dares you to be happier than you ever dreamed. Because he seems a living, breathing example of a man living comfortably in that exalted state, that dare has the weight of a serious challenge. I hope he sings at the inauguration.

Brian Stokes Mitchell plays through Saturday at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, 540 Park Avenue, at 61st Street, (212) 339-4095,

Variety - 11-13-08

Brian Stokes Mitchell: Songs… I Like to Sing

(Feinstein's; 140 capacity; $95 top plus $40 minimum)

Band: Jeff Peterson, Gary Haase, Bashiri Johnson. Opened, reviewed Nov. 11, 2008. Runs through Nov. 15.

Brian Stokes Mitchell bounds into Feinstein's at the Regency with high spirits and high talent, treating the customers to one of the finest night's entertainment presently on view in Manhattan. Mitchell's singing and acting abilities are no secret to those who have seen him onstage and in concert, but he is at his best in this perfectly assembled and performed 85 minutes.

Set starts with an exuberant "I've Got You Under My Skin" and continues with a well-considered mix of songs from the theater, pop and cabaret worlds. Each of the 14 numbers scores, with six or so positively rocking the house. A stunning rendition of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Waters of March" leads to an exquisite take on Hoagy Carmichael's "The Nearness of You," after which the nitery veritably explodes with Ella Fitzgerald's "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." "This is sort of a feel-good time," Mitchell can't help but explain.

After an unexpected but stunning "Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring," the star launched into a breathtaking a cappella rendition of "America the Beautiful" (including the "alabaster cities gleam" stanza). This is wedded to a powerful "Wheels of a Dream" from "Ragtime," the combination of which literally stops the show.

Other standouts include the Legrand-Bergman "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" and a heartfelt rendition of John Bucchino's "Unexpressed."

Mitchell is not only a consummate performer but a consummate musician as well. He outfits the act with an unlikely trio of guitar, bass and percussion. This works exceptionally well, in part because of a Hawaiian import named Jeff Peterson, who does an impressive job on four different members of the guitar family; call him the Pizzarelli of the islands. His playing stands out on "Waters of March" and "What a Wonderful World"; his solo spot -- "Hiilawe," played on the slack key guitar -- is so arresting that Mitchell simply sat on the lip of the stage and listened.

The star concluded the set, inevitably enough, with "The Impossible Dream." "To beat the unbeatable foe," he sings, and the words never sounded more fitting or more thrilling. Whoever is booking the upcoming inauguration shindig may wish to take note: Mitchell's "America the Beautiful"- -"Wheels of a Dream"--"Impossible Dream" trifecta is the musical personification of what is taking place on Jan. 20 down along

Pennsylvania Avenue.


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