Tony Award-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell of Ragtime, Man of La Mancha, and Kiss Me, Kate fame is no stranger to the Kennedy Center stage and, given the strength of his voice, it’s easy to see why he’s invited back time and time again. He’s appeared in many a concert with the National Symphony Orchestra and those of us who have followed his Broadway and concert career for years can likely guess his set list even before he even steps foot onto the stage because he has so many signature tunes.
Certainly, we would hear the accomplished baritone take on tunes like “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha, “The Wheels of a Dream” from Ragtime, and at least one or two numbers from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classics like Carousel and Pacific. We did hear those – and he was in fabulous voice. Yet, those that ventured out to Foggy Bottom this Mother’s Day were in for a particularly special treat even if they’ve seen Stokes – as he is largely known – multiple times in concert.
The esteemed Choral Arts Society of Washington and the Washington Performing Arts Society managed to present a concert of musical theatre showstoppers that not only featured Stokes’ remarkable vocals, but also over a hundred other highly accomplished voices that comprise the Choral Arts Society Chorus. The chorus and Stokes each presented several individual selections, all of which were extraordinarily strong. However, when his voice and the choral voices melded together, it was pure magic.
It’s almost impossible to put on a bad concert when the set list includes works by the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, and Jule Styne and Bob Merrill along with contemporary writers for the musical theatre/cabaret worlds like Maury Yeston and John Bucchino, as well as Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. However, there were a few things that set this concert apart from all of the others that have featured Broadway music.
First, I have to give credit to the Choral Arts Society Chorus, conducted by Scott Tucker. Largely known for its classical repertoire, they proved their versatility by presenting a very fun medley of Stephen Sondheim hits from Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Follies, and Company. I must admit I was a bit skeptical when I saw the tongue-in-cheek commentary on marriage, “The Little Things You Do Together” (from Company) in the program set list. Yet, the group had fun with it ‘show choir-style’ all while displaying stellar vocals. A strong group of instrumentalists on violin, viola, cello, reeds, trumpets, horn, trombone, guitar, bass guitar, synthesizer, piano, and drums made it all the more special.
Second, taking a page from Barbara Cook’s playbook, Stokes stepped back in time to an era where the great Broadway vocalists did not need a microphone to reach the back of a cavernous theatre. His unplugged take on “This Nearly Was Mine” (from South Pacific), which featured Stokes’ longtime accompanist Tedd Firth on piano as well as the other instrumentalists, melted my little musical theatre-loving heart. His impressive technique was matched by perfect emotion. I only wish I could see him take on the role of refined Frenchman Emile de Becque in a full production.
A third highlight comes in the form of something I’ve largely expected from Stokes’ every time I have seen him in concert – a triumphant and technically perfect rendition of the anthem “The Wheels of a Dream.” Yet, this time it was even more impressive with the choral members adding their voices to the mix during the choruses. Magical? Yes it was.
This concert was a one-night-only event at the Kennedy Center on May 12, 2013.