“The thing about doing concerts,” Brian Stokes Mitchell says, “is that it’s doing a live show. It’s on my schedule, it’s songs I want to sing, it’s saying what I want to say, it’s working with the people I want to work with. I don’t have to worry about pleasing other people—I can do what I want and people come along and go for the ride.”
Mitchell, who prefers to be called “Stokes,” is bringing his show In Character to Disney Hall on February 6. He’ll perform feature songs from his last album, Simply Broadway, and selections from the Broadway shows that he’s starred in, including Ragtime, Kiss Me, Kate (for which he won a Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical) and Man of La Mancha—all alongside the LA Philharmonic.
“I wanted to expand Simply Broadway for orchestra,” he says, noting that the only prominent instrument on the album is piano. “Because this is my first time with the LA Phil, I’m mixing it up a little more than usual.” While the first act will focus on the record, the second will be a little more varied and eclectic. “No matter what song I’m singing, I try to take on a certain spirit or persona to make it like a one-act mini play,” Stokes says. “Each song becomes its own thing.”
As one of the leading stars on Broadway, Stokes has more recently been selective about doing shows. There was a gap between Man of La Mancha (2003) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2010). He’ll next appear in this spring’s Shuffle Along, a revival of the 1921 Broadway hit that was one of the earliest musicals starring, written, and directed by African Americans. Amongst his co-stars in Shuffle Along is Audra McDonald. He and McDonald were in Ragtime together and have made multiple concert appearances. “Something magical seems to happen between our two voices when we sing,” he says. “It’s bigger than the individual voices. We think about music the same. We think similar things about life. Our approach is so similar. But we have these two very different kinds of voices. They complement each other, and something else happens. I just leave it at that.”
Despite his connection with McDonald, the prospect of returning to the grind of a Broadway production weighs on Stokes. “During Man of La Mancha my wife was in the cast with me, and she got pregnant,” he says. “I took a sabbatical. I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to work on Broadway, but it doesn’t give me an outside life. So I decided to go into the concert world. I do 40 to 50 shows. That takes one to three days a week, and I’m home the rest of the time. Doing eight shows a week is hard. I’m not looking forward to it, frankly. It’s an incredible cast, show, group of people, and it’s a magical experience. I love everything about it, but the prospect of eight shows a week—that’s making me think about it.”
The modern staging of Shuffle Along has taken on a subtitle: Shuffle Along, Or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. It is a restaging of Eubie Blake’s original musical paired with a new book written by director George C. Wolfe, which will include scenes that reveal the saga surrounding the show’s creation. Stokes feels the revival will resonate with audience members of all races. “That’s the magic of art and the magic of theatre,” he says. “It has the power to transform an audience, an individual or en masse, to transform them and give them an epiphanal experience that changes their life, opens their hearts and their minds and the way they think. I love when you walk out and realize we’re the same and we want the same thing.”