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A big-time baritone

Susan Saccoccia | 5/11/2010, 10:25 a.m.
The son of a Tuskegee Airman, Brian Stokes Mitchell is the consummate performer Susan Saccoccia ...
Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

The son of a Tuskegee Airman, Brian Stokes Mitchell is the consummate performer

About a dozen different characters performed at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge Saturday night, although just two men were on the stage: pianist Tedd Firth and the magnificent Broadway baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell.

As Mitchell took the capacity audience in the 1,100-seat theater through a tour of favorite songs he has sung as a performer in American musicals, he became the characters behind each song.

Telling the audience that he’s performed just about all the roles he has wanted to play but one, Mitchell introduced “Soliloquy” from “Carousel.”

As the flawed hero, carnival barker Billy Bigelow, contemplates raising a son — or daughter, Mitchell’s handsome face and lithe body contorted to convey the anguish of this loving, footloose man and then changed to express his joy, hope and resolve.

On this Mother’s Day eve, a number of Mitchell’s songs explored fatherhood.

He brought authority and tenderness to “Wheels of a Dream,” from the Ahrens-Flaherty score of “Ragtime,” in which he played Coalhouse Walker Jr., the African American father who envisions a better life for his child.

With his first song, “Some Enchanted Evening” from “South Pacific,” Mitchell set the tone for the concert, a presentation of Celebrity Series of Boston, which ran for 90 minutes, and after standing ovations, also included two encores.

Mitchell’s deep, commanding baritone easily overcame a loud if momentary grumble in the mike, and while his voice cast its spell, his humorous grimace introduced his warm sense of humor.

Promising the audience a “big baritone” concert, he praised Sanders Theatre for its acoustics and architecture, saying it is one of his five favorite concert halls in the U.S.

Noting that his Broadway roles have included assorted “rakes and rapscallions,” he added, “Not all of my favorite characters have been bad boys,” and began a goose-bump inducing rendering of “Dulcinea,” from “Man of La Mancha.”  

Each song was an act in itself. In between, Mitchell was every inch the ebullient leading man, telling anecdotes, mixing a bit of autobiography with comments on his craft and the collaborative world of theater.

An elegant and lyrical pianist, Firth was as versatile as Mitchell, easily adapting to the style, tempo and mood of each song.

Mitchell, 53, has earned critical raves since he began performing on Broadway in the early ‘90s and in 2000 he won a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance of Petruchio in “Kiss Me Kate.”

Raised on the West Coast and the son of a Tuskegee Airman, Mitchell was successful early on in Hollywood as a television actor. After a seven-year stint as Dr. Jackpot Jackson in “Trapper John, M.D.,” Mitchell moved to New York where he has thrived at his true calling — the blend of singing and acting that is musical theater and cabaret.

He also met his wife, the actress Allyson Tucker, in New York, where they live with their son, Ellington, 6, and an adopted mutt, Diggity.