By Andy Dillehay
Brian Stokes Mitchell, The Lied Center, January 21, 2023
On a snowy Saturday night, the Lied Center for Performing Arts was abuzz with excitement as concertgoers awaited Brian Stokes Mitchell’s Nebraska debut. As people made their way to their seats, there was a sense of camaraderie; a connection amongst the audience. While attending performing arts events in a COVID-19 world, I have noticed a strong feeling of gratitude at each one. Not only are people glad to be at the theatre, they are happy to be among friends.
Though the set up was simple – a piano, microphone, and stool – there was nothing simple about Brian Stokes Mitchell’s performance. Kicking off the evening, very fittingly, with “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” Mitchell’s enigmatic energy immediately captured the audience’s attention. He took the stage with such poise and ease. Even with this concert taking place on the vast Lied Center stage, it felt incredibly intimate.
At the top of the show, Mitchell clearly stated the objective of this performance; he wanted to leave the audience in better spirits than when they arrived. He described the theatre as a church (“a good church,” he further specified) and hoped the audience would leave feeling levitated. Mitchell did not stray from addressing the “wacky few years,” we’ve all endured. However, he used this as an invitation. “If you don’t like the way the world looks, change the way you look at the world,” he quoted before diving into “Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote).”
While Mitchell is a celebrated theatre performer, the music of the evening spanned many genres. There was, of course, a healthy dose of musical theatre classics. From “How to Handle a Woman,” and “If Ever I Would Leave You,” from Camelot, to “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” from Porgy and Bess, it is obvious why the New York Times dubbed Mitchell as “the last leading man.” Mitchell does more than just sing; he inhabits the character and tells a story. This was apparent in his interpretation of “(Not) Getting Married Today,” from Company, assuming three different roles. Even while singing the Billy Strayhorn classic, “Lush Life,” and Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” Mitchell’s rich, baritone voice and charismatic presence displayed exceptional versatility.
Joining Mitchell onstage was his longtime collaborator, the immensely talented pianist, Tedd Firth. Firth seamlessly transitioned from musical theatre to jazz, all while inserting his own unique style. Though Brian Stokes Mitchell was the headliner of this concert, this was certainly a collaborative effort among two masters of their craft.
Between songs, Mitchell regaled the audience with a mix of personal stories and some history of the songs he was singing. Before singing “Stars,” Mitchell admitted that, prior to performing in the Hollywood Bowl production of Les Miserables, he was not the biggest fan of the show, which drew an audible gasp from the audience. However, he did say that while working on that production, he was struck with the theme that had captured audiences for years – there is intrinsic goodness in all of us.
Throughout the performance, Mitchell dropped in nuggets of positivity and wisdom. It was apparent that he truly did want the audience to leave feeling better than when they arrived. Mitchell coyly teased the end of the concert with a goosebump-inducing rendition of “Wheels of a Dream,” from Ragtime, which immediately brought the audience to their feet. With a reception like that, he couldn’t help but do an encore, leading him to sing “The Impossible Dream (The Quest),” from Man of La Mancha. Mitchell went viral during the early days of the pandemic as he would stand on his balcony and sing this song, drawing crowds of hundreds to the street below. Again, the audience responded with a standing ovation. With his final encore, Mitchell ended the evening stating that we “need a lot more connection these days,” before his uplifting rendition of “What a Wonderful World.”
Brian Stokes Mitchell easily fulfilled his mission to elevate and inspire the audience. This was a positively enjoyable evening. Mitchell is a true Broadway legend. Though this was his first time in Nebraska, I certainly hope it’s not his last.
Andy Dillehay is an actor/writer/artist from Lincoln, Nebraska, having been involved in theatre since he was 7 years old.
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