For his debut engagement in this week’s first-class Diamond Series at Feinstein’s/54 Below, where he had performed three previous concerts, two-time Tony Award-winning Broadway veteran, humanitarian, and fan favorite Brian Stokes Mitchell (following the audience’s enjoyment of a welcome drink and a specially curated gourmet four-course meal) dazzled the house in his return to the popular supper club with a sparkling gem of a show, featuring a selection of songs and stories from his illustrious career.
Accompanied by long-time pianist Tedd Firth, and the top-notch trio of Bob Magnuson on sax and flute, Jordyn Davis on bass, and Mark McLean on drums (each spotlighted in impressive featured solos throughout the evening), the multi-talented Stokes (as he likes to be called), interspersed his stellar vocals with musical segments on the melodica, charming direct-address repartee about his life and professional journey, and personal observations on the state of the world and what we all need right now: “LOVE! JOY! CONNECTION!” He brought it.
Presented in the format of a “wildcard show,” the set list of American standards, jazz, and showtunes from the celebrated musicals in which he starred (including Man of La Mancha, Ragtime, South Pacific, and Kiss Me, Kate) were selected in part by requests solicited from the enthusiastic audience, making each show in the run different from the others. Opening with the upbeat Cole Porter classic “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” on the date I attended, he then launched into a powerful rendition of “I, Don Quixote,” with verses in both English and Spanish, highlighting his resonant baritone voice, compelling embodiment of the beloved character, and total command of the stage, prefacing the number with a quote from the fictional hero, “If you don’t like the way the world looks, change the way you look at the world.” His innate optimism radiated throughout the venue, securing the rapt attention of everyone there for the duration of the two-hour performance.
The intimate show closed with an encore (preceded and followed by an extended standing ovation) that began with another of the beloved songs from Man of La Mancha, “The Impossible Dream,” along with Stokes’ firsthand account of him singing it out of his window for many evenings in the spring of 2020, in honor of the heroism of NYC’s essential workers during the pandemic (his imitation of the police officer who had to deal with the traffic congestion it caused was hilarious, as was his tongue-in-cheek comment about having gotten COVID twice himself). He concluded with a rousing version of “What a Wonderful World,” which, as intended, left us all hopeful, appreciative, and “levitating.”
In between, the artist paid tribute in song and stories to the legendary Stephen Sondheim (with “Another Hundred People” and “Being Alive” from Company) and Billy Strayhorn (the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s signature hit “Take the ‘A’ Train,” the wistful “Lush Life,” and the smooth “Satin Doll”), all delivered by Stokes with consummate jazz stylings and heartfelt emotion. He also performed an irresistible arrangement of the Brazilian Antônio Carlos Jobim’s impressionistic “Waters of March” in English and Portuguese, two blockbuster numbers from Ragtime (“Wheels of a Dream” and “Make Them Hear You”), Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ cheerful and reassuring “Pick Yourself Up,” and more, all evincing his extraordinary talent, vocal range, and breath control, his natural ease with the songs and the audience, and his obvious love of music, the theater, life, and humanity.
As always, the Diamond Series offers a very special NYC evening, with superb food and unsurpassed entertainment, and no one is more special than the extraordinary and uplifting Brian Stokes Mitchell.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 50 minutes, without intermission.
Brian Stokes Mitchell: Songs and Stories plays through Saturday, June 25, 2022, at 8:30 pm (doors open at 6 pm), at Feinstein’s/54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, cellar, NYC. For tickets (priced at $300-475, including a welcome drink, four-course dinner, tax, and gratuity), call (646) 707-2990, or go online.